Audiences cultivate a certain expectation depending on the film distributor. With Warner Bros. Pictures, odds are you’re getting something fairly mainstream; whereas A24 almost always releases genre-pushing indies. In the middle lies Neon, where it handles mainstream documentaries like Apollo 11 and Three Identical Strangers, critical darling I, Tonya, as well as dark indies Ingrid Goes West and Colossal. Whether or not the film works is obviously subjective, but there’s no question that whatever Neon touches is going to be bold. Their latest release, Luce, continues this trend as a pulse-pounding, tension-filled psychological thriller adapted by director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox) from playwright J.C. Lee’s stage production. In a tight 109-minutes, Onah puts into motion a film which examines ideas of racial coding, classism, parenting, academic excellence, nature vs. nurture, and more, all without losing an ounce of power or sincerity.
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the adopted son of Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), an athlete, and a scholar in his senior year. Due to his local acclaim, his personal story of growing up in a war-torn country and being adopted by foreign language-speaking adults is well-known everyone. This creates within Luce a sense of being who he is versus who everyone thinks he is. These disparate notions come to a vicious junction after his History/Government teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), perceives a veiled threat within an essay Luce submits. With a small act of organizational procedure enacted by a seemingly well-intentioned teacher, a game for power begins on a small-scale with incredibly large, and unforeseeable consequences.
There isn’t a moment in Luce which offers any kind of comfort. A relentless attack from the start, Luce doesn’t possess a scene without multiple meanings, a camera angle without suggestiveness, or music that doesn’t put you on edge. At its core, Luce is about perspective and the biases we bring to what we experience. In the opening, before we meet anyone at all, the camera focuses on a locker in a school, slowly gliding closer until we’re right on it. At that moment, it opens, an item is removed, and a brown bag is placed inside. It’s a seemingly innocuous moment and easily shrugged off, particularly as the next scene formally introduces the audience to Luce as he gives a speech. He’s well-mannered, comfortable, and articulate in addressing his classmates, their parents, and all the teachers crowded into the room. Through simple editing, we’re meant to forget that brown bag as we fall under Luce’s spell of charm and charisma as he presents himself exactly as we’d expect the adopted son of two well-to-do white people. This is, by Lee and Onah’s design, absolutely intentional, because they want the audience to get comfortable in their own biases about who they think Luce is before the story takes a turn and suddenly the audience doesn’t know what to think or who to trust. This is the brilliance of Luce in its narrative. Everything is plainly presented, but always with one piece of information just out of reach, leaving the audience feeling as though the full answer is lingering on the outskirts of the frame. As such, once Onah unsettles you, that feeling never leaves, even after the final scene fades to black.
Unlike other thrillers where the stakes are explicitly laid out and the fate of the world is frequently in the balance, Luce’s exploration of human psychology allows for smaller events to take on a notion of extreme danger without the threat of citywide carnage. This requires the audience to pay attention to every little detail otherwise some meaning will be missed. Take the notion that Luce refers to his parents by their first names. Doing so is a method of autonomy that children seeking independence from their parents can use to distance themselves from the parent-child relationship. Another way to view it is a child raised by two non-biological parents to whom is he grateful, but he does not altogether trust. Or perhaps it’s a signal of the difference between private and public personas as he’ll call them Mom and Dad in a speech, but not directly to them. The language he uses is specifically coded to his audience and Luce is distinctly aware of this at all times. He knows how his language is filtered and translated, almost to a hyper degree. It’s what makes scenes like a simple debate prep crackle with tension as the student-teacher relationship is weaponized to an almost nuclear degree. In a battle of wits, Luce and Ms. Wilson lob response after response after each other, challenging each other’s ethics and logic, all under the guise of preparing Luce for competition. Even as suspicion rises and characters are pit against others, there’s really no telling how any one character will react in any given situation, leading to a feeling that audiences are watching a powder keg set to explode driven by a roulette wheel.
As expected from the cast, all of them are firing on every cylinder they possess. Watching Watts and Roth grapple with how to balance parental responsibility and global citizenship against the weight of the years it took to build trust with Luce after his adoption is understandably paralyzing. Parent or not, it’s easy to understand their choices even if you vehemently disagree with them, all due of course to their high-quality performances. Roth is less present in the story, but when he’s involved, a sense of finality inserts itself. as though Roth as Peter’s will is the end of things. Conversely, Watts as Amy is a more constant presence as she’s more thoroughly integrated into the story, requiring the actor to embody the audience as the objective observer. As written, it’s a beautiful fallacy as no parent is ever impartial when it comes to their children. If Roth and Watts are running at an 8 throughout Luce, Spencer and Harrison Jr. are running full-tilt 11 as they go word-for-word, position-for-position against each other with their respective characters. Again, playing with expectations, Spencer’s Ms. Wilson is introduced as the well-intentioned teacher, then circumstances begin creeping doubt. For her part, Spencer gives a career-best performance that should not go unnoticed during award season. Playing opposite, Harrison Jr. not only keeps up, but demonstrates his is a talent on the rise. Their scenes together are the best of the film as each line, each reaction, puts a new spin on the surrounding circumstances.
Given the climate in our country as it relates to race, anxiety is the new normal. Add in school dynamics where the person you are may be hidden behind the person everyone thinks you are and, suddenly, everything seems ripe for explosion. This combined with the premise sets audiences up for nothing but high anxiety throughout Luce. It comes unexpectedly and never lets up, somehow even soaring higher upon the chilling final moments of the film. With choices aplenty at home and in the theater, Onah’s adaptation of Luce is a must-see film of 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.