Luce is acting, we think. You can tell, because of the way that Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s eyes flick — right — there.
See it? It’s subtle. Maybe a trick of the camera. On second thought, maybe he’s telling the truth.
Destabilizing moments like these fill director Julius Onah’s “Luce,” a psychological thriller where no character turns out to be quite who we expect them to be. Viewers spend the nearly two-hour runtime as voyeurs. We peer up through a turquoise metal locker at Luce, glance at him sideways as he crouches over the starting line of a track race, or watch as he hunches over a laptop. As he scans his screen for information, we scan his face for the same.
Thanks to a remarkably nuanced performance by Harrison and Onah and J.C. Lee’s tightly-crafted script, the answers to our questions emerge either piecemeal or not at all. Lee and Onah adapted the movie from Lee’s 2013 off-Broadway play.
Luce is the black, teenage son of white, liberal-minded parents Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from war torn Eritrea when Luce was 7. After years of therapy for PTSD from his years as a child soldier, Luce has grown into an almost implausibly perfect student and school poster boy: debate team captain, football player, track star, soon-to-be valedictorian. The Edgars are thrilled — and a bit smug — about his success.
Passions ignite when Luce submits an essay to his take-no-prisoners history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). The assignment asked students to assume the voice of a historical figure, and Luce chose Frantz Fanon, the pan-Africanist anti-colonial theorist who wrote, among other things, about violence as a necessary tool in the decolonization process. Luce writes a little too convincingly for Wilson’s taste. Wilson, suspicious, searches his locker and finds a cache of illegal fireworks — an intrusion that sparks a standoff between student and teacher. Is Luce really harboring a dangerous radical streak, or is Wilson blowing things out of proportion?
The adults in Luce’s life begin to reckon with the range of expectations they have vested — perhaps selfishly — in their wunderkind. Luce, for his part, feels suffocated by Wilson’s patronizing politics of respectability and her propensity for tokenism — she has singled out Luce repeatedly as an example for his black male peers, but punishes black students who don’t meet Luce’s standard of perfection. “What’s the difference between punishing someone if they’re a stereotype and rewarding them if they’re not?” he asks his parents.
Watts’s anxious, overly defensive mother plays perfectly against Spencer’s spectacular performance as a calculated, driven teacher. When Wilson summons Amy Edgar to discuss Luce’s essay, the tension is palpable. “With the climate around school security the way it is right now,” Spencer begins in measured tones. In a single, pointed glance, she manages to convey the weight of the mass violence epidemic in schools.
Harrison has mastered the ability to overact, ever so slightly, so as to clue in the audience to Luce’s code-switching among his many roles: student, friend, child, self. But when Luce runs, he looks fixedly ahead and breathes heavily, and we see his control over his expression slip. The score, a thumping, electrifying series of snares and yells, by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (soundtrack of 2018’s “Annihilation” ), sends shock waves.
Sometimes the story’s ambiguity runs the risk of feeling contrived. Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), Luce’s girlfriend, allows the audience and the audience-surrogate, Watts, a glimpse into a troubling school culture and Kim’s own sexual assault. Yet her choice to divulge these personal details feels forced. Similarly, Watts’s insistence on pursuing in secret the truth about her son, as opposed to asking him simple questions outright, doesn’t quite track. The questions echo long after the credits roll — which is either brilliant or maddening, depending on who you ask.
Directed by Julius Onah. Written by Onah and J.C. Lee; based on Lee’s play. Starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth. At Kendall Square. 109 minutes. R (violence, discussions of violence, sexual content, some language).