Questions of identity, authority, allegations, and assumptions are raised in the suspenseful psychological drama, “Luce.” It’s best to go into this film knowing very little about the details and plot, because the surprises are not only revealed through the story, but also through the way the audience is forced to become active participants and stay alert to figure out what’s true and what’s a lie.
The film works on two levels: what’s slowly revealed through each character and what they learn onscreen, and the audience’s ability to decipher the small details. Your own prejudices and perceptions will color how you respond and react to this movie. This movie will keep your brain working overtime, and the conflict and suspense are so amped up that they may feel unbearable.
Well-intentioned liberal couple Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, both excellent here) adopted their son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) when he was 10 years old from a country at war. A former child soldier, Luce had a rough time adjusting to his new life in America. Now a 17 year old high school senior, Luce has worked hard to become what others have molded him to be: a polite young man, a star athlete, an A-plus student, and a positive role model for his peers. He’s beloved by everyone in town and in school, and he seems like the perfect teenager.
Things turn sinister when Luce’s African-American teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) assigns the class to write an essay in the voice of a historical figure. Luce composes a paper that glorifies political violence and, concerned about the content of the report, Mrs. Wilson searches his locker. She finds something disturbing and immediately calls his parents to alert them of her suspicions. This angers everyone since the teacher didn’t ask for permission to open Luce’s locker.
Luce insists Mrs. Wilson is simply out to get him because he’s black, and claims she often puts pressure on him to work hard so he’ll be prepared for success in a white man’s world. He gives his parents many examples of how his teacher has publicly embarrassed other students or made inappropriate comments about race in the classroom. This starts to put everyone at odds and as lies become exposed, horrific truths are revealed and unthinkable suspicions are confirmed.
But are they?
It’s all part of a larger puzzle, and you have to decide with whom you sympathize. Do you side with the teacher, the parents, or the teenage son? What’s even more fascinating is what your own life experience, educational background, sex, race, age, social status, and preconceived notions will bring to your interpretation of what unfolds. The audience is involved the entire time, like a lurking bystander.
Luce is a terrific, empathetic kid, but he also has a creepy stalker vibe. He’s all smiles, but his charm is so alluring that he may just be using it as a powerful way to control and manipulate women, adults, and his buddies. It’s horrific in a way because you have to keep guessing if Luce is a saint or a monster — and you will likely be wrong. People see what they want to see and don’t see what they don’t want to see.
“Luce” is one of the most unforgettable films of 2019. It left me stunned and is something I will be talking about for years to come.