Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is the apple of his parents’ eyes, his school’s star pupil, and the natural leader of his friend group. It’s a façade he’s worked hard at, and one that we watch crack and transform through the course of Luce, Julius Onah’s madcap and surprising drama/thriller/political statement. It’s hard to adequately summarise this film, which changes its genre and story on a whim, but somehow manages to keep itself consistently compelling, even as you find yourself on shaky ground in working out what it actually is.
Adopted at age 7 from war-torn Eritrea by white American couple Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), we first meet Luce as he approaches his last year of high school and an identity crisis that comes with that. After writing a disturbing paper inspired by Frantz Fanon, a violence-advocating anti-colonialist, Luce is confronted by his oddly obsessive teacher Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer), and so begins a battle of wills between the pair, framed by every hot button issue there is. Adapting his own play, writer JC Lee tackles race relations, sexual assault, school shooters, and more, and though these topics are sometimes handled heavy-handedly or superficially (particularly its approach to mental health), Lee and Onah expertly skewer white liberalism.
Embodied by Watts’s character, the takedowns of performative wokeness are astonishingly efficient and funny, needing only a couple of lines to draw up the whole ideology and bring it crashing down on itself. While its exploration of these themes are consistently interesting, Luce is never satisfied staying still for too long, and takes a sharp turn into trashy revenge thriller territory as Luce and Wilson’s conflict escalates. It’s a choice that can be confusing, and does raise some unintentional laughs, but it all comes together very slickly and is incredibly entertaining.
Pushing the action forward with a relentless drive is Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s urgent, pounding score. Crashing percussion raises the pulse as we try and work out exactly what Luce’s endgame is. Holding all these wildly disparate threads together is an incredible performance from Harrison Jr. As Luce has to be all things to all people, so Harrison Jr perfectly modulates his performance to every environment. He’s calm and controlled at home, an alpha jock with his friends, and icily sinister whenever he’s alone with Miss Wilson. Without such a powerful bit of acting at its core, Luce likely wouldn’t work at all, but brought together by its leading man as skilfully as it is, it’s a flawed but ridiculously fun and ambitious ride.