“Luce” is supposed to be a complex and compelling drama on race and identity, but it somehow left me with considerable dissatisfaction. While raising several interesting questions to reflect on, the movie often feels contrived and heavy-handed in terms of story and characters, and I was particularly disappointed with its expected finale, where it blatantly and clumsily spells out its themes and subjects without overcoming its stagy aspects.
The movie, which is adapted by director Julius Onah and his co-writer JC Lee from Lee’s stage play of the same name, mainly revolves around the four main characters: Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts), her husband Peter (Tim Roth), their adopted son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and his high school history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). During the opening scene, we see how promising Luce is as your average model student, and Amy and Peter are certainly proud of him as watching him confidently delivering a nice speech in front of teachers and students and parents. When Luce later introduces his adopted parents to Miss Wilson, we sense some subtle tension between Luce and Miss Wilson, who regards him with stern reservation while being courteous to Amy and Peter on the surface.
On the next day, Miss Wilson contacts with Amy, and it turns out that she has something serious to discuss with Amy. A few days ago, Miss Wilson gave an essay assignment to Luce and other students in her class, and Luce submitted a solid essay written from the imagined viewpoint of a certain radical figure. Although the movie never shows us what exactly he wrote in his essay, the essay seemed to unnerve Miss Wilson a lot for how it regards violence as an acceptable option for solving problems, and then she found a very alarming thing when she subsequently searched Luce’s locker.
After her meeting with Miss Wilson, Amy talks to Peter, and both of them come to wonder whether their sincere efforts on their son come to nothing. When they adopted him several years ago, he was an ex-child solider from Eritrea, and they did everything they could do for his rehabilitation and subsequent adaptation to his new environment, but now it is quite conceivable that their son has a hidden side to which they have been oblivious.
When he eventually comes to learn of what Miss Wilson talks to his parents, Luce understandably denies what she accuses him of, and Amy and Peter become more confused and conflicted about what to do under this complicated circumstance. Is their son as dangerous as his teacher suggests? Or, are they unfairly treating their son just like his teacher only because of his dark, violent past he is supposed to leave behind?
As the tension among these four main characters is accumulated more and more, the situation becomes more complicated than before. After talking with an Asian American female student who is one of the students attending Miss Wilson’s class along with Luce, Amy comes to have more doubt on whether she and her husband really know and understand their son. Miss Wilson senses some hostility from Luce, and she is certainly disturbed when she and her mentally unstable sister unexpectedly come across Luce at one point.
In the meantime, Onah and Lee’s adapted screenplay tries to present Luce’s viewpoint to some degree, but, unfortunately, Luce is more or less than a plot element to be interpreted in one way or another. There is a thought-provoking moment between him and a bitter schoolmate who lost his precious scholarship because of a minor transgression reported by Miss Wilson, but the movie does not advance further from that as adamantly sticking to its ambivalent attitude to Luce, and that is rather frustrating for us.
Moreover, the movie is a little too artificial and manipulative during its last act. Although I do not mind being manipulated, the movie depends a lot on several distracting plot contrivances in my opinion, and I quickly discerned what would be bound to happen sooner or later around its finale, which did not surprise me much while only leaving hollow impressions in the end.
At least, the main cast members are solid although they are hampered by their thin archetype roles at time. Kelvin Harrison Jr., who drew my attention for the first time with his good supporting performance in “It Comes at Night” (2017), did more than required by his bland thankless role, and I am sure that this talent young actor will soon move onto better things to come. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Octavia Spencer are reliable as usual, and I enjoyed how Spencer brings some harshness to her usual no-nonsense persona. In case of other main cast members in the film, Norbert Leo Butz and Marsha Stephanie Blake are unfortunately stuck with their under-developed roles, and so are Brian “Astro” Bradley and Andrea Bang, a Korean Canadian actress who has been mainly known for her supporting role in Canadian TV sitcom series “Kim’s Convenience”
While initially drawing my attention for its interesting subjects, “Luce” ultimately fails in delivering something coherent enough to linger on my mind, and I only came to wonder whether its story and characters can be more effective and plausible on stage. The movie was not a total waste of time at least, but now I really want to watch its stage version someday – and that is not a good sign at all, you know.