Luce delivers some truly impressive dramatic performances from its ensemble cast, screaming “Oscars!” from the rooftops with its tension-riddled, multi-layered commentary on race relations. Directed by Julius Onah (proving the haters wrong following the critically-panned The Cloverfield Paradox), Luce isn’t the sort of melodramatic awards fare you might expect from a story about racial disharmony in the Arlington, VA suburbs. While the story deals with dense subject matter, the tone resembles the camp thrills and constant manipulations of something like Gone Girl, while its the over-the-top student-teacher rivalry should bring to mind Reese Witherspoon’s 1999 satire Election. The impact of Luce, however, comes primarily from its sense of provocation. As it compellingly picks apart the liberal dream of a post-racial society, its wilder impulses ostracize its most interesting character, into the realm of muddled (if amusing) caricature, giving the film an ultimately unsatisfying ambiguity.
Luce is the name of Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s inscrutable character, a former child soldier born in Eritrea who was adopted at the age of seven by a suburban white couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Now a senior in high school, Luce is a veritable golden boy: he’s the soon-to-be valedictorian, plus a track and debate star. Luce relishes in the high praise constantly showered on him by other students, teachers, and his doting parents, but things get complicated when history teacher, Harriet (Octavia Spencer), shows Amy a troubling and violent essay Luce wrote for class, as well as a bag of illegal fireworks she’s confiscated from his locker. As the adults try to get to the bottom of what this means, Luce proves himself to be a masterful manipulator. Rather than suffer the consequences that a typical black student might face in these circumstances, Luce wields his “star student” persona and the privilege of his white family upbringing to shield himself. He masterfully rebuffs accusations against him, which mostly undermines Harriet’s real concerns.
A personable and well-spoken young man with a warm smile to boot, Luce is frustrated with the idea that as a black man, he’s boxed in as either an exception to the rule, or just another pot-smoking, stereotypically troubled sort. His black friends describe him as the group’s “Obama,” and his white friends say they don’t consider him to be “black black.” Watts is disoriented and an emotionally-panicked helicopter mom, while Spencer is the stern and quietly afflicted Harriet, and together they deliver their best performances recent memory. Still, relative newcomer Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who you might know from Trey Edward Shultz’ dystopian horror movie It Comes At Night, steals the show as the man of many faces. He’s a sweet, familiar, vulnerable teen in one moment, and a startling menace in the next. The double life of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho comes to mind, a testament to Harrison’s skill. Indeed, he will make a spectacular villain one day, and he’s just as likely to play the hero in an uplifting biopic.
At the same time, these two-faced shifts sensationalize the very real struggle embodied by Luce. He is fixated on his inability to enjoy the freedoms of a white, custom-made identity, and intent on exacting some sort of abstracted revenge on Harriet (the person he views as upholding the “box” of racial stereotypes), Luce at times reads more like a brilliant, criminal mastermind than a human. And while Onah peppers the drama with issues of sexual assault and mental illness, these topics are diminished as mere ideological tools Luce recruits in his smoke and mirrors game of racial optics. Luce throws more than enough at you, but in its final swings, there’s the off putting sense that everything’s just a game.