Modern day America gets a thorough workout in “Luce,” the year’s second showcase for a remarkable young actor.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of “Waves” fame is front and center, again, playing another “perfect” high school student who may not be as idyllic as we’re told.
The indie film offers a crush of killer performances, story lines ripped from our social media age and the suggestion that the American dream is in jeopardy. Not from Orange Man Bad, mind you, but by the cultural expectations heaped upon our best and brightest.
You could argue it’s a salvo against our intersectional age, but the story and screenplay is messier than any overt messaging.
Harrison stars as the title character, a black teen who, at the age of 10, was adopted by white parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth). They saved him from a war-torn country, gave him copious therapy and watched him grow into a model pupil.
Only that isn’t enough, apparently, for one teacher.
Octavia Spencer plays Harriet, an instructor who brings her intersectional politics to the classroom. Sound familiar? Her heart may be in the right place, but she routinely does more than instruct. She breaks down “coded” language, pushes social justice bromides and takes a very personal interest in select students.
Pretty sure the three “R’s” don’t cover that brand of teaching.
“Luce’s” emotional fireworks start with the real deal. Harriet worries Luce may harbor violent thoughts after he writes a paper through the eyes of a radical -- per her instructions. She takes it upon herself to inspect his locker and finds a brown paper bag brimming with fireworks. She tells Luce’s parents, starting a tug of war between teacher and student, parent and parent.
“Luce” is a primer and warning sign about the scourge of intersectionality. There’s so much pressure, and expectation, placed on Luce. The social constructs are suffocating, even for a teen as gifted as Luce.
Amy knows the score. The film opens with her spouting social justice jargon, but like the rest of the film’s mechanics it’s baked into the character cake. She’s a real person, not a woke token, all to director/co-writer Julius Onah’s credit.
The story is overcooked, though, which makes it both gripping and less than real. Harriet’s sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) is a drug addict who weaves in and out of the narrative at convenient times. It’s just one of several precious plot elements that threaten the film’s believable sheen.
Luce’s chance meeting with Harriet’s sister might be the most obvious, “oh, come on!” moment in the movie.
A subplot involving a fellow student with romantic ties to Luce is given less attention than it deserves. That element plays into the deliberately murky tale.
Is Luce guilty of anything here? Or are the answers impossible to suss out?
Meanwhile, Luce himself remains inscrutable. That’s partly due to Harrison’s creative choices. His face is a mask of what the world wants him to project, and he’s either along for the ride or happy to distract us.
Like other Gen Z types, he hates labels perhaps most of all.
It’s a sublime performance in a film overflowing with them. Spencer could have made Harriet into a villain or victim. Instead, she wavers from one pole to the next, always keeping Harriet’s guiding principles in mind.
Films like “Luce” could be cringe-worth affairs where the director’s personal beliefs bleed into the narrative. That rarely happens in a complicated tale that captures the culture in select strokes.
HiT or Miss: “Luce” packs too many subplots, but a commanding lead performance and willingness to get its hands dirty more than compensates for that flaw.