LUCE is a thriller, but not in the traditional sense. It’s not a film in which someone is stalked by a psycho/killer, although the tension throughout is such that it feels that way. Luce is about a 17-year-old high school student and his adoptive parents and the teacher who stirs things up by her suspicion that Luce may not be the perfect human being he appears to be.
The film opens with Luce on stage at the podium of his tony high school in Arlington, Virginia. He’s making a speech, something he’s very good at since he’s the star of the school’s debate team. It’s a speech that not too many kids could get away with and still retain the respect of their classmates. It’s heavy on how wonderful the teachers and the school and all their parents are, but Luce knows how to deliver. He’s charming and handsome and exceptionally bright. After the speech, Luce’s parents meet Ms. Wilson, Luce’s history teacher. To them she seems stern, to put it mildly, and in no time at all, she asks Luce’s mother to come in for a private conference. Ms. Wilson is concerned about a paper Luce has written, a class assignment in which she asked the students to write from the point of view of an historical figure. Luce chose Frantz Fanon, a 20th century black psychiatrist/philosopher (born in the French colony of Martinique), who believed that violence was often necessary to overthrow oppression. That paper and the bag of fireworks she’s found in his locker (yes, she’s gone into his locker and other lockers, too) are enough to convince her that Luce may be planning something harmful to the school. However, it’s already been established that the school’s track team athletes (Luce is a star there, too) often throw stuff in one another’s lockers when it’s convenient.
Luce’s parents are an affluent white couple who adopted him at age seven. Prior to that, he was the kind of boy most of us have only heard or read about: a child soldier in an African country. A loving home and years of therapy have helped make him the exemplary young man we see at the start of the film. But when doubt creeps into any relationship, trouble is sure to follow. What makes the story even more complex is that Ms. Wilson is black herself, a dedicated teacher, but a woman who clearly didn’t grow up on easy street. One would think she might cut Luce some slack. She does, in her own way, which only adds to the mounting tension that fuels the plot and draws other students (with troubles of their own) into the fiery mix.
LUCE is a concise but complex piece of storytelling with no spare parts. It clocks in at one hour fifty minutes. As the credits rolled, I learned it was based on a play by J.C. Lee, a play I definitely want to see if it’s ever performed at a theatre near me or one that I can get to without going broke. Some critics who’ve reviewed the film seem to think it could have benefited from a few spare parts. That’s because not all the questions that arise in the film are answered definitively. I’m pretty sure I figured out most of what happened, but there are a few loose threads that remain open to interpretation. I like that. Life is like that.
“I’m not interested in preaching to people. I’m not interested in trying to convince them that they’re wrong or that I’m right. I’m interested in having a conversation with people.” –J.C. Lee, the playwright who co-wrote the screenplay, in an on-line interview with nbcsandiego.com in May 2019
The lead actors need to be mentioned by name. All of them are deserving of consideration come Awards season: Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Luce), Naomi Watts & Tim Roth (the parents) and Octavia Spencer (Ms. Wilson).
LUCE is a story about the difficulties of finding one’s way in today’s world. That’s true for the young man trying to manage all the expectations heaped on top of him as he tries to discover who he wants to be. That’s true for his parents, who want to protect the son they’ve nurtured through so much trauma. And it’s also true for the teacher. She wants her exceptional black student to be a credit to his race and to his school, but she also knows what can happen at any school–in the blink of an eye.
LUCE is also a story about race–a story that will have me–and you, too, I hope–thinking about this film for a long time to come.