Directed By Julius Onah
Starring – Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr
The Plot – A married couple (Watts, Tim Roth) is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son (Harrison Jr), adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher (Spencer) threatens his status as an all-star student.
Rated R for adult language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use
– Strong mystery. The audience for the film serves as the jury between Spencer and Harrison’s respective characters and conflict, and what I love about this gimmick is that as the film evolves in its unraveling, our vantage point for who is telling the truth becomes more blurred and obscured from what we previously started with, leaving us with a series of questionable characters and motives that deviate from their once honorable intentions. It forces us to hang on to the every interaction, as well as study their facial reactions firmly to gauge any level of insight into their motivations, conjuring up a delightfully ambiguous butterfly effect of consequences that increases with each accusation.
– Creativity with musical tones. The mastery of composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury find a unique manner of musical accompaniment that not only preserves the high school environment where most of this story takes place, but also composes these tones in a way that builds the tension of inevitability with each passing repetition of notes. It sounds like a high school marching band, complete with trumpets, horns, cymbals, and thunderous drums that brings forth easily the most distinguishable musical score of 2019. Even without sounding dark or forbodding, the tones offer a level of ominous uncertainty that plays into the hand of the teacher and student wonderfully, sounding like a countdown on the path to conflict before either side comes to blows. When you come up with something original with music in 2019, respect is earned from this critic, and this colorfully vibrant duo stamp a level of permanence and identity to the film that allows it to stand out from the competition in terms of juxtaposed tonal capacities.
– Stirring performances. Everyone here is deserving of academy recognition, but mainly the trio of Watts, Harrison Jr, and Spencer, who maintain these anything but ideal people. For Watts, the torn frailty of being forced to stand by your kid through muddy waters is something that emits a level frazzled nerves, complete with many long-winded yelling scenes of dialogue that cements the idea of an actress who gives everything emotionally to her craft. Spencer is equally riveting, outlining a teacher who is every bit as cryptic in movements and motivations as her title character opponent. Octavia commands attention every time she’s on screen, and you feel such a rumbling repertoire from an actress who doesn’t require yelling to sell her threatening menace. Harrison Jr is the show stealer for me, however, emoting Luce often as two different people who make up this troubled young man. He’s intelligent, good-looking, combative, and worst of all, knows it. He knows how to use his gifts from this adoption to gain what he wants, and regardless where the movie takes him, Kelvin chews up the scenery unapologetically enough that you almost laugh at the strings he pulls these people through.
– Complexity of protagonist. What’s so unique about Luce’s situation is that he has to excel in being both a role model for black youths, who aren’t often afforded the same level of opportunities in a white-dominated society, while also trying to escape the haunting memories of being a part of a war-torn nation. It begs the question if nurture can conquer nature, all the while maintaining this level of social commentary on the race forefront that teaches us about judging a book by its cover. What’s exceptional about this is that the movie doesn’t judge Luce by just a color, and doesn’t label any of the white characters as racist, feeling like a film that flows as naturally accepting as anything that I’ve seen in recent memory, and refusing to reach for the low-hanging fruit of racist subplots that too many black-led movies aim for. The material focuses on the similar predicaments that all of these combustible elements are placed into, and not just surface level insensitivity that demeans them to nothing more than a color. Very smart.
– Deeper meaning in cinematography. This is a gorgeously shot film, whose color tint always feels a bit darker than we’re used to in conventional cinema. The reason for this decision from cinematographer Larkin Seiple seems to point to a ill-conceived intentions or a sinister motive hanging over the heads of our characters, in this sort of inescapable poison that forces them to confront it once it comes to a boiling simmer. Aside from this, the still-frame shot compositions allow more complexity in the form of multiple styles of editing, both blunt and fading, that seems to feed into the intensity of the previous scene that is playing out before our very eyes. There’s no shortage of subtle style to this film’s visual presentation, and from the opening shot seduces us by inviting us into this world of privilege, and immediately telling us that something darker is being played out behind the picket fences of the town’s patrons.
– Challenges black awareness. As to where the film doesn’t attack its material from a racism level of conflict, the complexity given to its black characters showcases their demeanor’s in a way that isn’t the typical from cinema, in that they are put into a box that is either perfect or evil, with no depth for the in between. This allows relatability in a way that very few minority-led films are given the freedom of these days, and what’s most important is that the film doesn’t fall for the white savior role for Watts and Roth that worried me from the looks of things in the trailers. These two parental figures are every bit as conflicted as their adopted son, and the script is smart enough to not only focus on Luce’s jaded disposition being a black kid in a white neighborhood, but also what that does for the parents who open their door to him. This is clearly a movie that values its characters, and spends ample time not only getting to know and understand their intentions, but also to document what is ticking within them from behind closed doors.
– Sharp pacing. I love that this film wastes no time in bringing viewers into its world, bringing forth a confrontation between Luce and his teacher that eloquently paints the picture for the following 106 minutes. Once we’re off and running, the film rarely slows down, stacking the proverbial log of suspense to further prolong the fire of interest that keeps you glued to the screen at all times. Never in the film did I feel bored or subdued by the film, and even in an ending that required slightly more definition to sell this as one of my favorite films of the year, the film as a whole can’t stop offering any level of race, social wokeness, over-policing, and rape culture to offer plenty of conversation pieces long after the movie ends. I’ve always thought that the best films are the ones that should leave you shook hours after the film concludes, and “Luce” offered a moving focus on the important social issues associated with adoption that I never thought about until now.
– Frustrating set-up. It’s not that I have difficulty believing that a teacher would freak out this bad over a paper that she herself inspired the students to write, but what plays into the rest of the story that follows is a bit of a stretch in logic for a film that is otherwise rooted in realism. Surely, there are better methods of set-up for this initial conflict, and while I do understand that its intentions were meant as a way to even the playing field for Spencer’s questionable character to look as cryptic as Luce, the manner used in garnering this response is something that is a stretch at least, and a gap in logic at most.
– The ending. Like its jaded protagonist, the final moments of the film lives somewhere in the middle, in terms of its satisfaction from the answers provided. It certainly wasn’t anything riveting for me in terms of permanance or epiphany, and it wasn’t a complete failure on the boundaries of anti-climatic. The film settles its conflict, then runs on for an addition ten minutes before the credits hit. One thing I will say is the final shot sequence involving Luce running at the camera is one that speaks volumes, not only for what he could be running away from, but also for running full steam towards a future that allows him to leave his troubles in the past. For my money, the closing moments could’ve used more focus particularly on Spencer’s character, because otherwise the film has an air of inconsequential that I know it didn’t intend for.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+