A pulse-pounding, tension-filled psychological thriller, J.C. Lee’s play Luce translates exceptionally well to the screen under the guidance of director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox). In a tight 109 minutes, Onah puts into motion a film that examines commonly held values about racial coding, classism, parenting, academic excellence, nature vs. nurture and more, all without losing an ounce of dramatic impact or becoming preachy.
Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr., It Comes at Night) is the adopted son of Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). He’s a high school senior, beloved by classmates, parents and instructors alike, who finds himself under the watchful eye of his history/government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) after an assignment he turns in reads like a veiled threat of potential violence at school. Thus begins a small-stakes struggle for power with incredibly large and unforeseeable consequences.
A relentless attack from the start, Luce provides zero comfort for viewers as it depicts scenes rife with multiple meanings, camera angles packed with suggestiveness and thoroughly suspenseful music. Though Watts and Roth are plenty intense, Spencer and Harrison Jr. make them look comparatively calm as they spar word-for-word and position-for-position with each other.
Both Luce and Ms. Wilson are initially presented in ways that lay the foundation for Lee’s real intent, which is to challenge the racial coding and biases commonly found in modern society. Much as Luce is initially depicted as the ideal student/son, so is Ms. Wilson shown as the ideal teacher — and it’s only with time and patience that the truth comes out about each of them.
If Spencer isn’t acknowledged during award season for a career-best performance, we may need to riot. For his part, Harrison Jr. manages to keep up with ease and demonstrates that he is a talent on the rise. Their scenes together make up the best parts of the film, as each line and reaction put a new spin on the already rich conflict.
From the premise alone, viewers can expect high anxiety throughout Luce. It comes unexpectedly and never lets up, somehow becoming even more tense in its chilling final moments. With viewing opportunities aplenty at home and in the theater, Onah’s masterful film is a must-see.
Now playing at Grail Moviehouse