‘Luce’ Is a Thought-Provoking Thriller That Doubles as Essential Social Discourse

What does protecting yourself or your loved ones truly cost? If you’re always fighting an uphill battle because others see you as a beacon of hope when you succeed, but you become a stereotyped example if you fail, is it possible to please the world? And how do you untangle such knots of tension? Luce,” a thought-provoking thriller with a layered, puzzle-piece like screenplay and strong performances, asks these questions.

Directed by Julius Onah, “Luce” is a socially conscious film constantly shifting its focus. The dialog-driven movie begins as a discourse on boundaries and assumptions, soon shifting into a debate about race and civil judgement, before ending with a parent teacher conference that doubles as a deposition scene questioning our capacity for cruelty and callousness. “Luce” can be described as a high school gossip movie in the form of a riddle.

The film is named after its main character, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a model student, track star and expert debater. His parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) adopted him a decade ago, rescuing young Luce from living out his life as a child soldier in a country ravaged by war. His history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), looks on suspiciously as the school’s poster child gives his class speeches. Everyone else seems to see Luce as a shining example of why the American dream still works. Does Harriet harbor some sort of secret resentment towards her student, or is something going on that justifies her targeting him?

After turning in a paper from the point of view of an African radical ⁠— a man that stands behind a philosophy of committing horrible acts of violence in order to topple leaders and liberate the oppressed ⁠— Harriet searches Luce’s locker, and calls his mother Amy to discuss the matter. Harriet gives Luce’s parents both their son’s paper and a bag of fireworks she found in his locker, which Harriet sees as potential explosives for him to use like a gun. Peter and Amy aren’t very subtle in asking their adopted son about his teacher’s suspicions, and Luce defends himself, maintaining that the whole purpose of the assignment was to write in the voice of the person their paper was about.

After learning of her anxious assumptions, Luce approaches Harriet after class in a confrontational manner. He has a big smile on his face throughout their conversation, but he’s swinging back and forth with a passive aggressive swagger and posturing the whole time. Luce happily tells his history teacher that Independence Day is his favorite holiday, because he loves what the Fourth of July represents and he also loves fireworks. Harriet interprets his statement, attitude and their discussion as a veiled threat against her. Luce’s parents further become fully entrenched in accusations thrown against their son, soon discovering that Harriet also believes Luce was involved in the sexual assault of student named Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang) at a school basement party. There are significantly more twists and turns to the plot, creating a film full of psychological surprises.

Based on a play of the same name by JC Lee, the movie is entirely built off of heightened, theatrical discourse on deeply complicated social subjects. While the chamber driven aspects of several scenes are clearly lifted from the stage, the adaptation still succeeds as a deftly detailed debate that sizzles on the screen, with ideas that will long stay lodged in the viewer’s brain. The cinematography is sleek, if a bit standard, but the film’s overall function far overshadows its form. “Luce” is emotionally riveting, and it never lets you stop thinking. The score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury stands out as an essential moodsetter that serves the movie’s ominous flow of power.

Both Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer’s performances are patented reminder that each are capable of executing just about any type of role. The actors are saddled with some leaden drama on a few occasions, but they’re still able to elevate the slightly overwritten material. Tim Roth is outstanding as well. His role is small but it’s very nature also speaks to several strengths of “Luce.” His character’s motivation might be partially removed from the overall situation, but the stakes of his perspective are still felt as a key part of the thematic narrative. The same goes for a side story with Harriet’s sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who is struggling with mental health issues and feels Harriet is not supporting her. The subplot becomes integral to the movie in a truly tragic way. 

While the entire conceit of the film relies on Luce’s ability to be suspiciously good at acting diplomatic, he comes off as a little too coded and untrustworthy in key moments. It’s certainly possible that this is a deliberate decision, blurring the line that spotlights who deserves to be supported, and treated as an equal, versus who the system tosses aside. Racial profiling and social performativity are threaded into the movie’s thematic coda, but a little too much muddy motivation remains. Though, likely a creative choice, at times, the motif of human misunderstanding also turns into an issue of audience miscommunication. The more calculating parts of his character are still left mysterious when the screen cuts to black.

Because “Luce” doesn’t answer all of the questions its audience is asking, the social conversation at the center of the film should spark important discourse. When you fail to completely conform to someone else’s idea of how you are supposed to be acting — of who you are supposed to be — you might soon find yourself counted among their enemies. People like to put each other in boxes, especially when they have expectations of you. It is both a luxury and a privilege to blindly be given the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes, all you can do is be the best version of you that you can be and choose your words carefully.  

Luce” opens Aug. 2 in select theaters.