HomeMovies'Luce' Review: Melodrama at its Finest

‘Luce’ Review: Melodrama at its Finest

Photo Courtesy NEON Releasing

You have to have been living under a rock to deny the last few years have been a time of enormous social and cultural change in America. From the shock of the 2016 election, to the #MeToo movement, to the way we discuss and understand race, it feels like the very meaning of America is being re-examined. It’s hard to imagine that any piece of art could capture what it feels like to live through this moment. However, Luce, the new film directed by Julias Onah and co-written by Onah and J.C. Lee, comes very close.

An ensemble piece to the core, it follows a group of people in a wealthy section of Arlington, Virginia bent on discovering one person’s true nature. That person is the titular Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school senior who spent the first 7 years of his life as a child soldier in Eritrea, but is now a model student and athlete thanks to his adoptive parents, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) Edgar. However, Luce’s perfection is thrown into question when his history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), alarmed by a paper in which Luce appears to sympathize with the philosophies of Frantz Fanon, searches his locker and finds a bag of highly explosive fireworks. Rather than alert the school, Harriet contacts Luce’s parents and Amy is forced to confront the limits of her love for her child.

With its overtones of school violence, race and even gender, the premise sounds like the plot of some kind of after school special. Indeed, the dialogue and what happens can feel overly artificial. The scene where Harriet tells Amy about the fireworks feels not like a real conversation, but two great actresses ramping up to give us a jarring inciting incident. That said, the heightened tone is precisely what makes that scene and everything that happens after so compelling. Onah and Lee aren’t going for realism, they’re going for melodrama and that elevated reality makes it easier to accept the, frankly, insane twists the plot takes.

While choices like the drab and suffocatingly shadowy cinematography and foreboding score contribute to the sense that the world we’re seeing is just slightly more dramatic and unknowable than ours, the brilliant performances by every actor are what really make the film succeed. Roth perfectly conveys what a blustering, resentful bastard Peter is in the scene where he hangs Amy out to dry in confronting Luce about the fireworks. Spencer projects formidable intelligence and authority every time Harriet has to navigate a tense exchange with the Edar clan. And while Watts can’t quite pull off an abrupt character turn near the film’s end, she is mostly at turns infuriating and sympathetic as a mother questioning whether her son might be a monster. Each actor essentially plays a broad caricature, but each manages to make their characters feel undeniably real.

That is, however, not true for Luce himself. To be clear, that’s not because of a flaw in Harrison Jr.’s performance. Rather, Harrison deserves awards attention for how skillfully he spends much of the movie leaving both the characters and audience wondering if Luce is a victim of circumstance or a total sociopath. In his first major confrontation with Harriet, it’s chilling to watch Luce project such a disarming air of affability even as he delivers a line that at once feels like idle chatter and a veiled threat. It’s thrilling to watch, but because Luce’s true nature remains so obscured throughout, Harrison Jr. never quite gets to make him feel like a real person. Instead, Luce feels like the embodiment of an idea: a rebuke of middle class whiteness, patriarchy and so much else who is meant to make the characters and the audience question what America really values.

Despite its merits, perhaps it’s inevitable that some will dismiss Luce as trying too hard to unnerve or shock its audience. There are, undeniably, a lot of moments meant to elicit a reaction, but it’s important to distinguish between confrontation and provocation. Sure, the tone is melodramatic and the plotting comes straight out of a pulpy detective thriller, but that heightened style is precisely what makes the film so disquieting. That extremity is what allows Onah and Lee to participate in conversations around race, gender and the ugliness that lies at the heart of the American dream. Luce may hold up a distorted mirror to society, but the image reflected back is totally clear.

Luce opens in select theaters Friday.

Marisa Carpico
Marisa Carpico
By day, Marisa Carpico stresses over America’s election system. By night, she becomes a pop culture obsessive. Whether it’s movies, TV or music, she watches and listens to it all so you don’t have to.


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