Some movies try too hard to be thought-provoking and provocative. They go out of their way to push the audience’s buttons, and as such don’t achieve their intended results.
LUCE (2019) is such a movie. While it tries to tell a worthwhile story, it just can’t seem to get out of its own way. It has characters making extreme decisions that distance it from what would otherwise be a realistic story.
LUCE opens with high school student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) giving a speech to his school community, his proud parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) in the audience. Luce is a talented student, obviously the darling of his school. One of his classmates refers to him as “their Obama.” Luce is black, his adoptive parents white, as Amy and Peter adopted him when he was a young child from war-torn Eritrea.
Luce has his whole positive future ahead of him, but with that, comes a lot of pressure, responsibility, and expectation, something that Luce is definitely feeling even though he shrugs it off with his smiling persona.
A teacher Luce does not like, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) contacts Amy with some troubling news about her son. Ms. Wilson explains she assigned an essay in which the students were to write from the perspective of a historical figure, and Luce chose a militant leader who believed that killing one’s enemies held the answers to life’s problems. Worried that Luce might actually believe what he had written, considering the violent childhood he experienced, Ms. Wilson searched his locker and found illegal fireworks.
Amy is shocked that Ms. Wilson violated her son’s rights and went into his locker without his permission, but the teacher assures her she only has Luce’s best interests at heart. She gives Amy the fireworks and asks her to have a conversation with her son. Amy does, and Luce’s answer is one, he wrote the essay in the mindset of its subject, not his own, and two, he and his friends share lockers, and so they often put things there that aren’t his. He also describes Ms. Wilson as the type of teacher who crosses the line, who makes examples of students, and who was responsible for getting his friend kicked off the track team.
Amy and Peter seem satisfied with Luce’s answers, although they go back and forth with different elements of his story, but when more accusations arise from Ms. Wilson, they believe that she has it out for their son.
If only the story were this simple.
But it’s not. See, from the get-go, even though Luce has all the right answers, it’s clear from watching him interact with his parents and his teacher, that there is something more going on. In short, he’s not so innocent. But just what is he guilty of, exactly? What is he doing, and why is he doing it? And hence, the thought-provoking aspects of the story come into play.
Luce is feeling a lot of pressure. Everyone looks up to him, and he feels the stress of expectation. He also feels responsible for his friends, and so when his buddy is kicked off the track team for having weed in his locker and as a result loses a scholarship, ruining his only chance of going to college, Luce is outraged that his friend is made an example of, and yet he is largely left unscathed.
And then there are the decisions made by certain characters which didn’t always seem real. Parents Amy and Peter make the extreme decision to lie and potentially ruin another person’s career to protect their son’s future.
Ms. Wilson in spite of her best intentions fails to communicate properly with her school’s administration, with Luce’s parents, and ultimately with Luce. She goes it alone which is almost always a disaster. Ms. Wilson messes up so badly it’s difficult to take her character seriously.
And Luce himself is an odd character. Supposedly the darling of his school, he is nonetheless manipulative, secretive, and downright sinister. The first two categories make him like a lot of high school teenagers, but the last one, the sinister angle, that one made him less real and far more contrived. At the end of the day, I didn’t like Luce one iota, and I also didn’t think he came off as a real person.
It’s a humorless screenplay by Julius Onah, who also directed, and J.C. Lee, based on Lee’s play of the same name. The point seems to be this is how difficult life is for a teenage boy like Luce, but Luce ultimately is such an annoying character I didn’t care how difficult his life was.
His parents Amy and Peter are just as annoying. When they lie to protect their son, they do so knowing full well that their decision will ruin a teacher’s career. Oh well. Gotta protect our son. The future needs him.
The one thing that LUCE has going for it is the acting. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Octavia Spencer are all excellent, but it’s young Kelvin Harrison Jr. who steals the show as Luce. He nails the teen’s smooth talking exterior, his inner conflict, and his unabashed self-confidence that he can do just about anything. One thing though I didn’t like was from the get-go, I did not trust Luce, and so I thought Harrison played up that angle a little too much. Harrison was also excellent in the above average horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).
I also enjoyed Andrea Bang as Luce’s girlfriend Stephanie.
And the film does have a potent hard-hitting music score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury which adds to the story’s dissonance.
But that being said, there really wasn’t much else to enjoy about LUCE as it’s not an enjoyable movie, and this is on purpose. Director Julius Onah seems to be saying that life for youths like Luce is complicated and tough, and getting through it is no picnic. But the way Luce and his family go about it raises red flags throughout and removes this potential thought-provoking story from any kind of realistic conversation.
LUCE ends as it begins, with Luce delivering a powerful speech to his school community. In this speech, Luce talks about being proud to be an American, because here in America, people get second chances. They get to move on from their mistakes, learn from them, and become better people.
All well and good, except that in this case, I don’t think Luce and his family deserve a second chance because they lied and manipulated their way through the first one.