The Movie Waffler New to Netflix - LUCE | The Movie Waffler

New to Netflix - LUCE

luce review
A teacher suspects her school's model pupil may have a dark side.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Julius Onah

Starring: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Tim Roth

luce poster

Director Julius Onah and co-writer JC Lee's Luce, adapted from the latter's stage play, paints a damning and depressing portrait of race relations in contemporary America. But it does so not in the lazily conventional manner of stereotypical bad white people (i.e. working class and uneducated) being awful to patronisingly angelic black victims. Quite the opposite. Luce is set in a world controlled by well-meaning white liberals who ultimately are as villainous as any snarling, Confederate flag waving rednecks.

luce review

The 'Luce' of the title is 17-year-old Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a former Eritrean child soldier adopted at either the age of 7 or 10 (the film contradicts itself on this point) by a wealthy white American couple, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth reprising their middle class shtick for Michael Haneke's American version of Funny Games). Despite his background, Luce has become the all-American boy, a star athlete and valedictorian at a school where he is adored by pupils and teachers alike.

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There's something a little creepy about Luce however. He adopts a smarmy manner when speaking to adults, an approximation perhaps of how he believes affluent white people present themselves, which is lapped up by his white elders. But African-American history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) isn't falling for his bullshit. After Luce pens a disturbing essay written in the voice of a pan-African revolutionary calling for violence as a means of progress, she searches his locker and finds a stash of illegal fireworks. Luce's parents are contacted, but they refuse to believe their boy would be capable of causing any trouble, perhaps because it would be an admission that they've failed as adoptive parents.

luce review

Luce is one of the most misanthropic movies to emerge from mainstream American cinema in quite some time. All of its central characters appear to be lying and scheming to some end, and we're never afforded the luxury of an unambiguous hero in this scenario. Ms Wilson, it's suggested, may have a self-hating side that causes her to pick on the minorities in her class. Along with targeting Luce, she previously ruined a young black boy's future by searching his locker and finding marijuana, costing him a crucial scholarship. She cruelly uses a young Asian girl, Stephanie (Andrea Bang), who it's believed was sexually assaulted at a party, as an example for her class of female victims living in silence. When it's implied that Luce may have been involved in said assault, Amy secretly meets with Stephanie, who may not be the victim she's painted herself as.

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Onah and Lee raise some uncomfortable ideas, chiefly that young women can lie about abuse in order to get their way and that children from war zones may not integrate into western society as easily as we would like to believe. These are dangerous ideas that could adversely affect audience members, but part of art's job is to make us feel uncomfortable, to prod at the assertions we stand behind. It's all too rare to have liberal ideas questioned in American cinema, and rarer still for black filmmakers to be given the chance to suggest that racial and gender harmony requires a lot more work than simply hiding behind cheap slogans and hashtags.

luce review

Yet for all its provocations and the work of its talented cast, Luce ultimately falls short because, like the awful "why can't we all just get along?" polemic Crash, it's a movie arguing against stereotypes that is itself filled with stereotypes, and most of its characters just don't come off as believable. I never bought the idea that Luce was wielding a gun in an African war zone just a few years prior to the movie's story, and his parents are so thinly drawn that it's difficult to swallow the notion that the first hurdle in their son's education would cause so many cracks to appear in their marriage. A subplot involving Ms Wilson's mentally ill sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) leaves a bad taste in the mouth, added purely to lead up to a shocking and exploitative moment. And in its final stretch, Luce disappointingly morphs from a compelling sociological drama into something approaching a Lifetime thriller. Luce is part of a conversation America clearly needs to have with itself, but I just wish it chose its words more carefully.

Luce is on Netflix UK/ROI now.