Cast your mind back to when you were at school. There was always at least one person in the class who could do no wrong. Who always did well at every academic subject, who was just as great at sports, who was popular with students and staff alike and whose future shone brightly. In director Julius Onah’s latest, his name is Luce and he brings something else to the party: his unique background makes him something of a trophy for his ambitious school.
We’re not shown any of his history – we don’t need to be – but Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jnr) was brought by his adoptive parents to the USA from war-torn Eritrea, where he was a boy soldier. Years of support, counselling and specialised education followed, resulting in a teenager both mom Amy (Naomi Watts) and dad Peter (Tim Roth), together with the staff at his school, are proud of. Principal Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) sums it up when he says, “Google a straight A student and Luce Edgar will come out top of the list.” Except that one teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) resists being a member of his fan club. Concerned by the content of one of his essays and a discovery in his locker, she takes her evidence firstly to Luce’s parents and then to the principal. Has she overstepped the mark? Is this a personal vendetta or, unlike everybody else around her, does she see the real truth about the star student?
Although it’s based on the off-Broadway play of the same name from J C Lee, Luce manages to walk the tightrope between showing its stage origins while successfully expanding into other settings, even though the bulk of the action takes place in either the school itself or Luce’s home. And, once Harriet’s conversation with Amy starts sowing those seeds of doubt, the audience has its own part to play. It’s the jury, presented with pieces of evidence that may – or may not – demonstrate there’s more to Luce than meets the eye. It’s all circumstantial, and doesn’t necessarily prove he’s something close to a charming sociopath, but it raises more questions, and they’re ones that his liberally minded parents find difficult to understand, let alone address.
For some time, the narrative is reminiscent of another play successfully adapted for the screen. Doubt, set in a church school, was released in 2008, with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest under the shadow of nun Meryl Streep’s disapproval and suspicion. Again, the audience listened to the evidence but the difference was that the ending was less than conclusive – and that was part of its appeal. In Luce, the truth eventually becomes more apparent, although not every aspect of the storyline is tied up and that’s a frustration. But with so many themes to examine – tokenism with a direct reference to Obama, followed closely by racism and privilege – it’s perhaps no surprise that something had to give. And that’s probably no bad thing.
Where it does score significantly is in the performances, especially from Kelvin Harrison Jnr in the title role. We have to wait until January to see him in the searing Waves, but his performance here is deeply satisfying in its complexity, a young man desperate to be allowed to be his own person rather than a symbol of others’ expectations. After his breakout role in It Comes At Night, he’s fast becoming one of the most electric young talents on the screen. Watts and Roth play a married couple for the second time (the first was in Funny Games in 2008), well intentioned and intelligent but with completely different approaches to the problem confronting them, making a solution even harder. And it almost goes without saying that Octavia Spencer is as compelling as ever as the teacher who sets high standards for her students and won’t compromise over them – or the truth.
Luce gives you some answers, but only some, leaving you to figure out the rest of its many questions for yourself. That ultimately makes for a less than substantial ending, and one that comes with frustrations, yet it never undermines the film’s ability to challenge and grip for its entire length.
Drama | Cert: 15 | Universal | UK, 8 November 2019 | Dir. Julius Onah | Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jnr, Andrea Bang, Marsha Stehanie Blake.