Julius Onah’s 2019 film Luce weaves a tale about identity, stereotypes and expectation and weaves it into a tense suburban thriller where the eerie quietness and uniformity of suburbia becomes another character in the cast. However, while it was a compelling film both visually and on an acting level, the story suffered greatly from a concept that was brilliant at first, but increasingly became more bloated and frustrating.
The film stars Kelvin Harris Jr. as the titular Luce with the all-star cast rounding out with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as the Edgars, Luce’s adoptive parents, and Octavia Spencer as Ms. Wilson, Luce’s history teacher who he has a very contentious relationship with. Before I go into the more plot heavy gripes I had with this movie, this is a fine cast that excelled in presenting the tense atmosphere of a vision of perfection and normalcy slowly cracking as something terrible has been discovered. Octavia Spencer was excellent as always, but Kelvin Harris Jr. did a damn fine job of being Luce to life. His strained smile, the affect in his voice, and portraying a young man who deeply desires to be something else than what is expected of him.
Naomi Watts and Tim Roth were not exactly standouts in the film, but they do a fine job of portraying well meaning, nice white people who learn that their job with raising their adoptive son might not have been the best in hindsight. Ultimately, their presence can be boiled down to them, sitting in a perfect, straight-outta-HGTV kitchen and/or living room, sipping wine while they artfully muse did they make the right decisions with their son. However, Watts’ character is a bit more meatier than Roth’s, but the true stars of the movies absolutely are Harris Jr. and Spencer.
Luce markets itself as a thriller but I read it as more of a character drama that focuses itself more on providing tense, introspective moments than outright suspense. I label it as “character drama” because I feel like it focuses more on trying to say something meaningful about the expectations of young black adults and teens in this country than trying to thrill its audience. However, the concept was almost tailor made to be a thriller: an exemplary black transracial adoptee is the vision of perfection in the eyes of his parents and teachers, but a disturbing essay causes that image to be shattered and gives birth to mistrust and fear. Said golden boy was adopted from Eritrea and was possibly orphaned from conflicts within the country.
Luce’s origin story could have been truly incredible because his backstory of possibly having PTSD before he came to America, but also how that caused him to be maladjusted and having to wear a mask to navigate his new life.
While it sounds as if I am being harsh on this movie, I assure you that I’m not! Maybe because I spent 2019 hearing the rumblings about this film and how it was so good because it tackles such hard hitting topics that are affecting Black Americans to this day. Onah does a good job showing how tokenism and racism manifesting in microaggressive expressions like the principal literally calling Luce a thoroughbred! (There isn’t enough time in the day for me to properly break down how messed up that is, but a quick summary: YOU SHOULD NEVER COMPARE A BLACK PERSON TO AN ANIMAL!) Despite my reservations with the plot, I found my face contorting in utter disbelief during the many times a well-meaning white person all but called Luce “one of the good ones.”
Despite some elements of the plot being effective, the Achilles’ heel of the plot is the conflict between Luce and Ms. Wilson. I cannot go into too many details because explaining it would expose the whole plot and ending of the film, but I will say that Onah and company could have did a better job of establishing Ms. Wilson as an antagonistic force, but that would have either helped the movie as a whole or slogged it down. The central theme of the film felt rather unbaked, but the film itself was a feat in terms of cinematography and music with its use of dark and light tones and its stripped down pseudo-Trent Reznor score that is just filled with hollow drums and bass. Select scenes were downright chilling and unnerving but to make matters worse, it felt all too familiar.
However, I just could not reconcile with my issues of the plot, but also how the alluded power struggle just fell flat at the end of the movie. A fine film that sadly burdens itself with ideas that definitely need some time to develop.