Directed by Julius Onah.
Starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer, Andrea Bang, Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Christopher Mann, and Noah Gaynor.
When a seemingly perfect married couple are forced to question the idealised version of their adopted son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), cracks begin to appear at home, and more worryingly at school, where a combustible relationship with his teacher (Octavia Spencer) threatens to boil over into something sinister.
Adapted for the screen from his own stage play, J.C. Lee teams up with The Cloverfield Paradox director Julius Onah to bring us this deeply challenging examination of self and identity in modern America, all anchored by an unsettling central performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. that you’ll find hard to shake.
The Broadway origins of Luce mean that this is a film in which actors are going to strive to bring their A-game, and there are some valedictorian level performances on display, but the film is of note for how it attempts to make this a unique cinematic experience, especially in its handling of the titular character.
Some of it is wonderfully subtle: the use of colloquialisms as Luce slips between “ask” and “aks”, emphasise his potential duplicity. While the sound of gunfire every time he opens his locker is at first disconcerting, before you realise that these echoes are all you’re going to get about his past as a child-soldier. We don’t need a back-story to embellish his character, the lack-of-knowledge only accentuates the unimaginable horror from which he must have come from. Isn’t not-knowing more terrifying? It works in tandem with the way Harrison Jr. is presented to the viewer: he stares down the lens, he offers up that disturbing grin, the camera uncomfortably lingering on him. Master manipulator or PTSD sufferer? That dichotomy is at the core of what makes Luce burrow its way under your skin.
Ratcheting up the psychological tension are a trio of performances that supplement Harrison’s role, offering counter-points to each of the visages he presents to those around him. As the parents torn by the dawning reality of adopting a child from a war-torn country, Roth and Watson are complex and brilliant, each slowly fraying around the edges in their own way. Teetering on the precipice of acceptance and denial, your sympathies towards them are as tested as their loyalty is for Luce. Similarly Octavia Spencer plays with your allegiances as a suspicious teacher who becomes worried when the star student writes a paper that suggests advocating violence in certain situations.
Their personalities fluctuate, the script unwilling to put anyone in a box, constantly playing with preconceptions and stereotypes, holding a mirror up to the current state of the world, despite the depressing discovery that this was actually written in 2011.
It won’t be for everyone, as some may not like the necessary distance the film keeps. There’s a tonal sterility to proceedings that stems from the automaton characteristics of Luce. Don’t expect things to be tied up in a neat little cathartic bow either. Luce leaves threads hanging, motivations and questions unresolved, particularly when it comes to the role of his on-off girlfriend, and potential abuse victim Stephanie (played with similar disquiet by the excellent Andrea Bang), which grinds to a sudden halt, and could quite easily be perceived as unsatisfying.
Meticulously crafted in a cold, ambiguous visual and narrative style, Luce thrives on its burgeoning sense of unease, largely generated by another hypnotic turn from Kelvin Harrison Jr. and a script layered with smarts.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt