The name Luce is packed with polarizing implications. It means “light” in Italian, but it is also derived from a particular type of Pike fish that is known to be aggressive, vicious, and even cannibalistic in certain circumstances. It’s that sort of exacting duality that not only pervades and ultimately defines Luce, a film that is preoccupied with ambiguity as not only a subject but also an organizing principle. It’s more interested in questions than answers. Instead of unfurling its themes, the film winds them tighter as it plays out, and by the end has twisted itself into a knot it can’t untie. That seems to be a purposeful ideological game director Julius Onah and co-writer J.C. Lee are playing with the audience, though it’s one that distracts them from any substantial reflection on what they’re putting on screen. This is a film of ideas that refuses to reckon with any of them.
Based on Lee’s 2013 play, Luce always feels like a stage adaptation, with its well-spoken characters engaging in frequent, verbose, intense exchanges of ideas, expressing their inward emotions as outwardly as possible, an exercise in telling rather than showing. It’s all part of the filmmakers’ grand plan to wedge as many contradictory points of view as possible into 100 minutes, every subsequent line attempting to up the ante with a new “yes, but…” scenario. Lively, intelligent conversation can certainly be invigorating to behold, but it falls flat in a cinematic context, where dialogue can only pop so much before it recedes into the background…even with the likes of Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth saying the words.
Apart from those inherent stage-to-screen growing pains, Luce’s stubborn insistence on projecting questions without answers ultimately prevents the story from probing those questions with any tangible depth, resulting in a shallow rehashing of painful issues with no new perspective. And there are questions aplenty, all swirling around the perception of race through the lens of privilege or lack thereof, the inability of anyone to burst their own preconceived bubble. At the center of everyone’s gaze is the titular character, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the academic and extracurricular star of his high school, equally likely to be named class president and valedictorian. His blackness has done little to stall his ascendance as the school’s unmatched standout student, though a unique set of circumstances has set him apart: born in war-torn Eritrea and raised as a child soldier before being adopted by wealthy white parents (Watts and Roth) and reared as a Golden Boy, all the while several of his black classmates struggle academically and are constantly in disciplinary trouble.
Privilege is the clear dividing line in the film, impacting how one is perceived and the opportunities one is given. Clearly, Luce benefits from his privilege, to the degree that one friend actually tells him, “you’re not black, you’re just Luce.” But with that privilege comes mounting pressure to maintain his status as a young black man succeeding in a white man’s world, and Luce may be showing cracks in his perfect façade. His teacher, Mrs. Wilson (Spencer), notices a series of alarming red flags: an essay in which he all-too-effectively espouses the perspective of violent revolutionary Frantz Fanon, a locker search that reveals a cache of potent fireworks, and a subsequent confrontation about all of the above in which Luce responds with veiled threats. When the teacher shares her concerns with Luce’s parents, it jolts them from their idealized image of their adopted son and makes them question, rightly or wrongly, if he’s not who they thought he was.
The ethical quandaries are myriad. Should Luce be judged for doing his assignment too well? Is it fair to then search his locker without consent? Is the teacher, who deals with varying degrees of racism every day, just jealous that Luce has been afforded such privilege? Do Luce’s parents, liberal as they express themselves to be, start to view him as separate when they sense he’s engaging in questionable behavior? These conflicts are just the tip of iceberg in this story, presented as a psychological powder keg in which conflicting implications are offered at every turn, so while each of the characters is operating with uncertainty about one another, we in the audience are uncertain about all of them. That sort of narrative strategy feels like a deliberate taunt, as if the filmmakers know the solution to their puzzle but dangle the missing pieces over our heads. It also wades in waters that are murky at best, pondering the behavior of young black men as “tamed versus untamed,” and depicting a questionable sexual assault allegation, both of which are frankly dangerous in this current culture, where racism and misogyny are weaponized by the U.S. government.
But bad timing is hardly Luce’s biggest problem. It would be an ideological junkyard in any era. It’s a film that is very proud to pose incendiary questions, but isn’t willing, or able, to follow through with any sort of revelatory or even vaguely evocative execution.