“Luce,” a new film by Julius Onah adapted from the play by JC Lee, will please fans of both David Mamet and Patricia Highsmith. It is a tense and uncompromising drama that will keep you guessing.
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a teenager adopted from Eritrea on the path to success. He is a star student and an accomplished debater. His parents, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) adore him, while his teachers tend to blush whenever he crosses their path.
After Luce gives a wondrous speech, his teacher Mrs. Wilson, (Octavia Spencer) calls a meeting with mom Amy with some disturbing findings. Luce wrote a violent paper advocating murder, and if that is not enough illegal fireworks (capable of being a small bomb) were found in his locker.
The parents are incredulous and quick to defend their son, while mom hides the fireworks. But, it turns out, Dad has doubts about his son. Luce tells his parents that his teacher is self-righteous and never liked him. The parents are dumbfounded. It becomes evident that Luce is cyberstalking Wilson. Wilson also has a hunch that Luce sexually assaulted his ex-girlfriend (Andrea Bang).
School opinion remains in Luce’s favor, but Amy is driven to find the truth.
All the while Luce conducts covert meetings with bad boy DeShaun (Brian Bradley). The two have a history and DeShaun always received the bad end of opportunity by mere chance.
The acting is riveting with blunt, rapid fire dialogue reminiscent of Mamet. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is superb and delivers an Oscar-caliber performance with expressions that oscillate between happiness, good humor, affront, obsequiousness and frigidity. We see the whole spectrum of feeling (or lack of it) within Luce.
This is not a formulaic drama. There are no transparent villains or monsters here. In watching this film, everyone has their toxicity. Above all, the character of Luce is both endearing and intimidating.
All of these ingredients make “Luce” one of the most disquieting and engaging films of the year.
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