In the middle of a summer of dumb fun and comic-book escapism, it’s some kind of miracle to find a film as seriously ambitious, scrappy and suspenseful as Luce. A provocation about race, privilege and the expectations that come with both, the movie follows the title character, played by star-in-the-making Kelvin Harrison Jr. He’s an African-American student and academic all-star at the Arlington, Virginia high school he attends. His white parents, a doctor named Amy (Naomi Watts) and a financier named Peter (Tim Roth), couldn’t be prouder; they adopted Luce at age seven from war-torn Eritrea, where he was trained to kill as part of a gun-toting army of children.
A decade of rehab and adjustment under their care has turned this young man into a first-rate athlete, a hyper-sharp debate team captain and the perfect choice to for senior-class valedictorian. During a run-through for a graduation speech about how much he owes America, the camera catches the usually smiling, supremely confident Luce alone and opening weeping. It’s the only time we see him so shaken, and the moment pins you to your seat. Who is this teenager so weighed down by the assumptions people make about him?
That’s the movie, and it’s riveting from start to finish. Nigerian-American director Julius Onah, who adapted J.C. Lee’s 2013 Off-Broadway play with the writer himself, knows what it’s like to be boxed into how others see you. His previous film, the 2018 Netflix film The Cloverfield Paradox, was a big-budget sci-fi clunker. But with his latest, Onah is out to show he can get audiences to challenge the very roots of what they believe.
He does this by putting Luce on a pedestal and then proceeding to rattle the ground underneath it. Suddenly, the public image of this bright young man is being questioned. His teacher and mentor, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), is feeling shaky in her faith regarding the school’s exemplar. In response to her request to write an essay about a historical figure he admires, Luce chooses the revolutionary African writer Frantz Fanon, who advocated violence to fight colonization. Wilson is so unnerved, she searches the teen’s locker and finds illegal fireworks. Is he a potential terrorist? Is the violence instilled in him as a child only lying dormant, ready to re-erupt?
Wilson turns to Luce’s parents and the result is mutually defensive. The confrontation scene between Spencer and Watts builds to an unbearable tension, heightened by the camera artistry of Larkin Seiple and the jangling score Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. Spencer, brilliant in one of the edgiest roles she has ever played, is a catalyst for high drama as the audience wonders if Wilson is justified in her actions or pushing a personal agenda fueled by personal resentment against Luce who she believes participated in a sexual assault against a former girlfriend, Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang).
Through it all, the mysterious, magnificent Harrison holds us in thrall, nailing every nuance — the breakout star of It Comes at Night is even more spectacular here. Luce is buffeted by winds that whip him whenever he refuses to conform to the expectations his family, friends, school, and adopted country set for him. Near the end, the film hints at answers, but hardly a resolution. How could it, with the hot button of race being pressed indiscriminately from the streets to the White House? You may leave this too-talky film a little frustrated, but you won’t be unmoved. It’s a penetrating examination of the constant battle of trying to see past our prejudices. It’s truly a movie of and for its time.