Luce Review: Onah’s socially aware thriller is thought-provoking, gripping, and never holds back
Although he might be coming off of the hot mess known as The Cloverfield Paradox, writer/director Julius Onah not only completely redeems himself with this newest film Luce, but creates a film that’s incredibly though-provoking, gut-wrenching, and absolutely thrilling.
There’re very few films that actually leave me stunned when I leave the theater like Luce did and I still found myself thinking about it for hours. Within its simple premise, there’s a legitimately complex battle about bias, stereotypes, and privilege that pulls no punches and has no filter. All of these issues surround the film’s titular character, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an all-star student that can do no wrong in everyone’s eyes – especially in his adoptive parents’ (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth). Being adopted from the war-torn country of Eritrea, Luce’s parents molded to be their idealized image and make him a role-model to beat the odd of African students in America. However, upon finding a dangerous item in his locker and reading strange material from a paper he wrote, a determined teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), sparks the idea that Luce might not be as perfect as everyone thinks he is. This leads the two to but heads for Luce’s parents to realize what their parenting might have caused and what it has caused to happen with Luce.
Right from the start, you can feel this psychological battle between Luce and Ms. Wilson and as the film delves into their mindsets on how they treat one another, their dynamic is riveting to watch. The way they battle against each other through great dialogue is great and with both of them being great debaters and able to throw digs at one another without making their agenda outwardly known to everyone, makes each moment with them thrilling. There’s a great scene where Luce lures Ms. Wilson to critique a debate speech of his and in that speech, in front of everyone, he digs at her behavior towards student and for searching his locker in a way that only she recognizes. This leads into another debate they have later in her classroom together, that sets off a cat and mouse game that viewers will be hooked on. This kind of writing is not only adding tension throughout the film and each character interaction, it adds a sense of mystery to each conversation that’s elevated by every actor’s performance and the way the film delves into different issues surrounding race and perception.
What makes Luce such an invigorating and thought-provoking watch is how blunt and open it is with having characters confront each other’s issues. It’s holds nothing back in how Luce’s upbringing has greatly affected people’s perceptions about him, how Ms. Wilson holds students of minority races regardless if they ask for it or not has made students feel ostracized, and how Luce’s parents make him lead a life of perfection regardless how it might affect him. There’s a great line Luce has where he is frustrated by how far everything has gone and that he can only be “a saint or a monster” and this sense of duality can be felt through every second of Harrison’s performance. He personifies Luce’s struggle to keep this model-student image that makes him the poster-boy black kid that he doesn’t want to be and with every smile he gives, there’s a sense of pain that viewers can feel behind it. Though he’s been forced to live in a black and white world, Harrison explores plenty shades of gray that Luce can and provides a performance that deserves awards recognition. I will say that there is a point with Luce where you start to question how much he enjoys what he’s doing and how much he knows what he could be doing is wrong. Now, I don’t know where this problem exactly stems from, but there are times where Luce comes off like a straight up sociopath and I couldn’t help but almost start to think of him like the Joker. It’s hard to say if him acting like this is supposed to represent how hard this upbringing has hit him and how it’s left him so determined to escape it that he would do just about anything to achieve it, but I still can’t help but feel like it’s a little hard to understand his plight because he might go a little to far.
Spencer also puts in a top-tier performance and she effortlessly utilizes Ms. Wilson determination and strong beliefs in her views to deliver a great monologue towards the film’s finale. Though she seems sinister with the way she treats others black kids differently to Luce and how he “empowers” other students against their will, Ms. Wilson’s motivations behind them are oddly logical, yet horrifying to hear – especially for Luce. It’s a monologue that highlights the issues with chasing the “American Dream” and gives Luce’s journey a gripping and somewhat terrifying realization that viewers will feel. There’re also solid performances from Roth and Watts as Luce’s parents and they both embody their character’s reliance on their son’s perfect image over his own well-being. Even with everything that happens to Luce, they are constantly concerned more about themselves and how their “effort” and “investment” was for naught and it really hits you with how they reap the rewards for how they raised him. All of these conversations and themes are even more effective, though, with Onah and writer J.C. Lee leave things for viewers to think about rather than provide easy answers because, well, there aren’t any. Even the film’s ending doesn’t necessarily leave any sort of point for Luce to follow next and instead leaves it up to him where to go next. It’s an ending I love because it’s more realistic and in some way more daunting than any other kind of answer could be.
Luce is a film that leaves you thinking and makes you immediately want to talk about with anyone you can find and I already find myself craving to see it again and again. It’s a film that worthy of multiple viewing to understand everything that Onah, Lee, and the entire cast have poured into it and its psychological thrills will keep you at the edge of your seat. Not only is Luce a film that deserves to be seen and recognized for everything this cast puts into it, but shows that Onah could be a new voice that cinema needs.
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