Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer
On the surface, Luce Edgar has it all — a great family, good grades and fame as the star of his high school track team. Almost all his teachers and peers expect him to go to college and achieve even greater things. He’s the model student, the ideal son, the perfect guy. In other words, he’s living the American dream.
Take a closer look, and you’ll find a young man, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., crumbling under the weight of societal constraints and cultural expectations. Once he writes an essay from the perspective of a revolutionary who argues violence is necessary to achieve a higher purpose, and one of his teachers makes a shocking discovery in his locker, everything changes.
His white adoptive parents, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) start questioning his morals, and a world that was once a wide-open pasture for Luce is now a prison he must escape. As the film moves along, the audience is asked to confront our own social prejudices and question whether or not Luce is who he says he is, and whose idea of the American dream was Luce even living for in the first place?
Much like the man it shares its name with, the film “Luce” is fascinating and complex on the outside. It’s a study of ethics, moral dilemmas and class that seeks to make the audience question their assumptions of people who look different than them.
It’s very similar to “Get Out” in the way it attempts to be a takedown of white liberalism, but it’s nowhere near as subtle or effective. It’s bizarre because on the one hand, “Luce” asks the viewer not to put people in boxes based on the color of their skin or the way they talk. But then it turns around and contradicts itself, putting them in those exact same boxes.
Amy and Peter adopted Luce from an African war zone when he was seven. The two took Luce in and raised him to flourish not only in the classroom or on the track, but in life. After Luce gets in trouble and their trust in him begins to dwindle, they start showing signs of resentment and regret. They wish they adopted a “simpler” kid — but in this case, we know what “simpler” means. They wanted a kid who looks more like them.
Roth, Watts and Harrision Jr. portray familial relationships that were once built on trust deteriorating into something that couldn’t be farther from that. Most of this has to do with Harrison’s dynamic performance. He has an edge that hints at his repressed anger that makes you question his capability to do the things his teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), accuses him of.
Even as Harrison thrives alongside Watts and Roth, his chemistry with Spencer is incomparable. The scenes they share in the film are phenomenal. One second you’ll believe Luce and think Ms. Wilson is the bad guy, but then a piece of information is revealed and your entire perception of their relationship shifts.
All their scenes together are standouts, but there’s one in Ms. Wilson’s home that blew me away. Her and Luce are talking about how it’s unfair that she expects him to be the poster boy for black kids who can overcome societal inequality. It’s such a brilliant scene, but thinking about it disappoints me because it reminds me of what this film could’ve been.
“Luce” poses many interesting questions, but it seems like it has no real interest in exploring them. The film backtracks whenever it’s on the verge of saying something meaningful. Its sloppy writing that could have been easily fixed with a few rewrites. This would’ve made for an all-around compelling story instead of just a few scenes that are outstanding, but only make-up half of the film.
Any theme the film delves into successfully is because of its stellar cast turning a shallow, empty script into something with actual depth and substance.
“Luce” is ultimately more of a thought-provoking examination of morals, race and the American dream, rather than a confusing and half-baked film with more half-baked concepts than actual full-fledged thoughts. But it often comes dangerously close to being the latter.
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