Luce is a serious, even solemn, attempt to make a drama about trust — and its betrayal — in our contemporary American climate of fear. So it is packed to the gills with topical issues.
At a suburban Virginia high school, the school’s leading student (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is confronted by a teacher (Octavia Spencer) with a bag containing dangerous high-powered fireworks that was found in the student’s locker. The teacher, Ms. Wilson, also questions the student, Luce, about his submitting an essay on Frantz Fanon, the Marxist political philosopher and author of The Wretched of the Earth. Ms. Wilson is anxious to draw a parallel between Luce’s writing about the African revolutionary author and his apparent possession of explosives.
That’s enough plot for any ordinary movie, but director Julius Onah and screenwriter J.C. Lee, adapting Lee’s play, aren’t quite finished setting up. Bright, athletic, African-American Luce is a refugee, adopted by his middle-class white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) from the troubled East African nation of Eritrea years before, when he was seven years old. When Luce’s parents find out about the teacher grilling their son they hurry to defend him, but are worried Luce isn’t telling the whole truth. This leads to tension at home.
As it turns out, Luce and Ms. Wilson don’t get along with each other. He resents her criticism of his essay, and also the fact that she raided his locker without permission. The teacher’s edgy feelings may be explained, in part, by the sudden reappearance of her sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a recovering mental patient. There are other troubles at Nova High — an Asian-American female student (Andrea Bang) was apparently sexually assaulted at a party, and a bitter school dropout (the actor Astro) has been loitering around, possibly dealing weed. As one character exclaims, “There’s something going on.” You can say that again.
All the above characters have trust issues with each other that lead them to cover up various truths, a tactic that only provokes further mistrust. Director Onah, a Nigerian native making his second feature narrative film, stirs his pot of discontent patiently, careful not to let the stew boil over before its time. The principal actors, especially Harrison, Watts, and Spencer, handle the plot’s peekaboo revelations ably, soft-pedaling the obvious histrionics in favor of standard-brand low-key art-house proceduralism. The film’s most sizzling scene has Luce and his accuser Ms. Wilson duking it out metaphorically (“America put you in a box”) on the subjects of blackness and society’s expectations.
But without spoiling the final reel, we have to note our disappointment at the ending, when Luce hurriedly sweeps everything under the rug and we’re left with basic unanswered questions. Fine cast, sensitive direction of same, cogent roster of social ills, but finally too many of them. This movie could have been split in two. There are more than enough problems to go around in real life, but this film doesn’t seem to know when to stop adding on, and the result is calamity overload.