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article imageReview: ‘Luce’ defies expectations, but what’s going on behind that smile Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Aug 7, 2019 in Entertainment
‘Luce’ is a thought-provoking psychological drama that follows a young man whose found creative and potentially destructive ways to manage his stress.
Everyone likes an underdog story. Seeing people/teams/animals succeed against all odds appeals to audiences because it makes them feel good by proxy. However, not a lot of thought is often given to the pressure these expectations can place on the one carrying everyone’s hopes on their shoulders. Of course they want to be successful for themselves, but there’s the added burden of potentially disappointing all their supporters if they don’t finish on top. Sure they say your best is good enough, but there’s always that little voice in the back of your mind that whispers it’s not true. In Luce, a young man faces all of these issues with mixed results.
Luce was adopted from a war-torn country when he was seven years old by well-to-do American suburbanites, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). Now, a decade later, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star athlete and accomplished debater about to graduate high school at the top of his class. He is on track for the perfect senior year with everyone rooting for his success, except his history teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who questions his authenticity. As rumours spread and tensions rise, the hostility between educator and student reaches a boiling point. In the meantime, Luce’s parents struggle with how to broach these issues with him without jeopardizing their hard-built and still potentially fragile relationship.
The film begins rather innocently, portraying a clean-cut young man giving a momentous speech and later hanging out with his teammates at school. Both his parents are professionals and they live in a nice house in a seemingly quiet neighbourhood. Then there’s the phone call from Ms. Wilson that shows the first signs of everything not being in perfect harmony at home or at school. Everyone begins to wonder if Luce is hiding some deep, dark feelings that could erupt into something more dangerous than a cheeky essay or veiled aggression. More significantly and specific to his situation, people wonder about the consequences if he never truly recovered from the atrocities he witnessed as a child — what could he be capable of then?
This psychological thriller keeps audiences on their toes by not clarifying Luce’s intentions or involvement, one way or the other. In one moment he appears to be a sociopath playing with the emotions of those around him, and the next he’s the victim of a vindictive teacher with only the utmost respect and gratitude for everyone. Luce attributes some of his less desirable behaviour to stress caused by the pressure to be the successful war child and live up to the feel-good story already inscribed for him — after all, who wouldn’t feel a little overwhelmed under the weight of everyone’s expectations. By the end, there are some explanations, but viewers are still left to wonder what path Luce may follow in the future.
The narrative doesn’t always feel evenly paced, but it’s gripping from the first hint of something being amiss to the very end. Harrison Jr. is disturbingly convincing, often using his eyes to convey Luce’s true feelings in spite of the smile on his face. Spencer plays the difficult role of the teacher who’s ascribed herself an even greater responsibility with just the right balance of righteousness and zeal. Watts’ and Roth’s characters are not exactly on the same page, but they do convey an interesting family dynamic.
This movie certainly qualifies as summer blockbuster relief, while also provoking stimulating conversations about racism, tokenism and privilege.
Director: Julius Onah
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer
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