Pulling threads: Survival and storycraft shape the tension in Luce

The tension rises in Luce when teacher (Octavia Spencer), student (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and parent (Naomi Watts) clash over a school essay. Courtesy of NEON The tension rises in Luce when teacher (Octavia Spencer), student (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and parent (Naomi Watts) clash over a school essay. Courtesy of NEON

Luce is many things: a coming of age story, a family drama, a biting social commentary. And though it uses many techniques and tropes from the thriller genre that may seem familiar, that is one thing it is not. Just as the indie drama Krisha was designed to feel like a horror film in order to put us in the head of a disturbed and paranoid person, Luce makes the audience feel like we’re caught in a Hitchcockian web of deceit as it explores all of the social and emotional layers at play in the life of an Eritrean teen, who was adopted as a child war refugee, and his privileged parents. Disturb one strand and it reverberates throughout the web, both in Luce’s mind and in the community at large.

High school senior Luce (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a straight-A student, accomplished athlete, debate team champion, and the shining light of his affluent suburb. His parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) couldn’t be prouder, and his fellow students rely on him. The one person who demands more is history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). She challenges him where others don’t, and when a series of discoveries threaten his status, his retaliation reveals the depth of his intellect, and his survival instinct.

I had the pleasure of watching Luce at Independent Film Festival Boston which included an appearance by co-writer and director Julius Onah, who spoke about coming to the U.S. from Nigeria. His personal experience brings an element of catharsis to Luce’s story. Their biographies are different but both had to find ways to belong while maintaining a personal, private identity. It is precisely when Luce feels his right to privacy is violated, when Harriet searches his locker, that he targets people who hold him back or stand in his way. But the scheming did not begin here; all of Luce’s life might have been a performance, working within the confines of liberal guilt and do-goodery so he can live free of scrutiny. Only by being perfect can he avoid the prying eyes that might unleash the trauma of having been a child soldier.

The film comes alive in the interactions between Harrison, a rising star, and Spencer, an established one, who continues to prove how versatile she is. Harriet knows Luce is up to something and has everyone else fooled, but whether it is a crime or emotional self-preservation remains a mystery to her. As a black teacher to an African-born child raised by white parents, she intends to look out for his best interests, but Luce objects to the idea that anyone knows what that is. This dynamic is so strong that it unfortunately overshadows other elements and performances. Harriet’s emotionally disturbed sister is well-portrayed by Marsha Stephanie Blake, but her role in the plot ultimately feels exploitative. Watts and Roth are terrific, and the question is raised as to whether Luce was adopted for his sake or for their own, but a movie this intelligent could have cut much deeper.

Still, Luce is one of the most unique films in recent memory and sure to be a topic of conversation for years to come. If it makes you uncomfortable, good. If it doesn’t, ask yourself why not.

Luce / R, 109 minutes/ Violet Crown Cinema

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 375 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213. regmovies.com z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.

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Years ago I was a teacher with poor and working class middle school age children in urban Portland OR, including with a sister and brother who were immigrants from Africa. They had a young brother in another class. The younger brother acted very goodie goodie. But it turned out that he was expertly manipulating the sympathetic teachers and administrators to get things he wanted while accusing and blaming other children falsely. Further turned out that his possible personality disorder or related behavior might have been ‘learned’ or ‘inherited’ from the mother who we later discovered was brutalizing the older children.… Read more »