JC Lee’s play “Luce,” which he’s refashioned for the screen with director Julius Onah, follows in the footsteps of others that have dealt with issues of perception in compelling ways—dramas like John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt,” in which a nun’s suspicions about a young priest’s dealings with a student lead to tragedy, and Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” in which parents have to come to grips with problems—including an act of violence—between their children. When it premiered in 2013, during the Obama presidency, the plot would also have carried an especially telling topical edge, which is hardly dulled in the Trump era, given the president’s (and his followers’) weird obsession with his predecessor.
Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the golden boy of his high-school senior glass, a star student and athlete. But he is also a young man with a history—rescued from life as a child soldier in the Congo, he was adopted by Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who have been unfailingly supportive from the moment they renamed him with the word that means “Light” in Latin, presumably because of the brightness he’d brought to their lives—and they, perhaps, to his.
Now, however, a dark cloud appears in the person of Luce’s demanding history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), a woman who’s especially hard on the minority students in her class because of her own experience with social expectations and bigotry. She’s already been responsible for one black student, DeShaun (Brian Bradley, aka Astro), losing his athletic scholarship after she found marijuana in his locker, and now she’s concerned about an essay Luce wrote in her class—a paper that was to be in the voice of an historical figure.
Luce had chosen Frantz Fanon, the political theorist from Martinique who advocated the use of violence in the struggle for national liberation. Given Luce’s background, Wilson found the paper, which effectively mimicked Fanon’s tone, troubling, and her concern was magnified when she rifled through his locker—apparently a regular practice on her part—and found a bag of powerful, illegal firecrackers.
She tells Amy about her concerns, who then informs her husband. They differ in their reactions: she accepts her son’s explanations, including the doubts he raises about Wilson, not only in her treatment of DeShaun but also her attitude toward Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), a girl who might have been taken advantage of sexually at a party—but Peter is more doubtful, especially of Luce’s excuse that athletes use one another’s lockers pretty indiscriminately, and the fireworks weren’t his.
The question, of course, is who Luce really is. Is he—as Amy and the school principal (Norbert Leo Butz) reflexively argue—the ultimate success story, showing how youngsters raised in a world of primitive brutality can be redeemed by acculturation in enlightened western values? Or is Wilson correct in suspecting a persistent darker side to him, and reading his conversations with her as menacing, though he insists they were merely meant to convey an apologetic tone?
Luce remains an ambiguous figure, his protestations of innocence to his parents and teachers contrasting with his admission that he finds it a wrenching burden to conform to the expectations of others, whether they be those of Amy and Peter, or of Wilson, or of his white pals, or of DeShaun, who sees him as something of a traitor. The question posed by the film—and by Harrison’s skillfully calibrated performance—is not merely “Who is he?” but “Who am I?” Lee eventually provides an answer that some will find exasperating, particularly because in presenting it he also attempts to flesh out the rationale behind Wilson’s attitude in a subplot involving her troubled sister Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake) while conveying Amy’s realization that things are much more complicated than she realized. But though the complexity of Lee’s conclusion may irritate those seeking a more straightforward one, it’s certainly more reflective of reality, although constructed in a highly verbal fashion more suited to stage than screen, even if an attempt has been made to “open it up.”
Harrison’s skill in keeping Luce an enigma to the close is key to the film’s effectiveness, but both Spencer and Watts are able, in their different ways, to suggest the two women’s struggle to come to terms with the challenge that the boy poses to their beliefs. Peter is frankly a less nuanced character, but Roth fills the role ably, as does Butz the part of the harried principal. Among the supporting cast Wang and Astro both have a few compelling moments, but on the screen Rosemary comes across as more a literary convention than she would on the boards, though Blake certainly embodies her to a fare-the-well. In a way the part reflects the problem faced by Onah, who has to walk a fine line between staginess and cinematic realism in directing the piece, and doesn’t always succeed in maintaining the requisite balance. Neither does the music score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, which is at times overly intrusive.
Still, in its theatrical way “Luce”—with an appropriately stark production design by Lisa Myers, crisp cinematography by Larkin Seiple, and able editing by Madeleine Gavin—raises provocative issues of identity and perception, nature and nurture, and leaves you with unsettling questions to ponder and debate.