'Luce': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Larkin Seiple/Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Bites off more than it can chew.

Naomi Watts and Tim Roth play parents worrying about their adopted son (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) in Julius Onah's drama.

An ambitious drama that can't be content with its promising central conflict, Julius Onah's Luce finds trouble — loads of it — in what all its characters want to see as an inspirational story of transformation: the war-zone orphan from Eritrea (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who, after being adopted by an American couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), grew into a charming, overachieving high schooler. However overstuffed and problematic, the film is a giant step up from Onah's recent The Cloverfield Paradox; but as in that film, the director fares poorly with some members of his very fine cast. Though provocative enough to start some film-fest conversations, it's unconvincing on too many fronts to go far.

Harrison's title character, in opening scenes, projects the kind of generic, uncomplicated virtue that rarely turns out to be genuine in works of fiction. He's giving one of those "let's thank the people who raised and taught us" speeches at a gathering of his fellow students, all of whom beam at him from the audience. Afterward, faculty members come over for chummy moments, congratulating Amy and Peter Edgar for raising such a perfect kid.

One teacher, though, is harder to read: Octavia Spencer's Harriet Wilson, stern enough to get called a "bitch" by nice people, has exceedingly high expectations of her students and seems particularly demanding of those from marginalized social groups. Later we'll hear how she took a girl who may have been sexually assaulted (Stephanie Kim, played by Andrea Bang) and aired her dirty laundry in class, using her as an example of how women must stand up for themselves.

Harriet calls Amy in for a meeting and drops a bombshell: Concerned about the tone of a paper Luce wrote about the revolutionary philosopher Frantz Fanon, she secretly searched his locker. There, she found a bag of illegal fireworks, which she sees as a warning sign of possible campus violence.

I've just lost some of you. The idea that a teacher would be able to search students' lockers on her own and not be fired (she's done it before, and everybody knows) is eyebrow-raising, especially in a school as full of privileged kids as this one. The script stretches credibility further in its next scenes at the Edgar home, where Amy and Peter argue about what to make of these accusations but, bizarrely, don't tell Luce about them — letting their weird vibes contaminate interactions with him but not bringing things to a resolution.

As it builds on this question and gives us reasons to wonder about each of its characters' motives, the film resembles a play like Doubt, in which a single question is the gateway to deep psychological drama. Luce did, in fact, originate as a play by JC Lee, who co-wrote the screenplay. But instead of digging deep on this unsettling question — are the traumas of Luce's youth festering toward an act of terrorism, or is Harriet shoving personal baggage onto innocent kids? — the screenplay immediately begins piling one hot-button issue onto another.

As it introduces several other characters and their troubles, the pic is soon talking not just about race and white guilt but about rapey jock behavior and codes of silence; the capricious punishment of drug use; the exploitation of the mentally ill; gaslighting; altruistic adoption versus the instinct to create one's own biological children; and a few smaller topics.

All that, plus the stress Luce feels about being viewed by everyone around him as an inspirational model instead of a person. More than once, he begs not to be abstracted in others' talk about him: "I'm not going to be somebody's symbol." But that's just what he is here — along with all the other pawns on the screen, some of whom are brought more convincingly to life than others by the actors playing them.

Amid all these distractions, Luce's exploration of its core mystery never satisfies. Onah and Lee introduce intriguing bits of evidence and connect some dots, but the director doesn't seem sure what he wants from Harrison. Some scenes present Luce as a schemer hiding mountains of grievance under a broad smile; others show a sympathetic young man struggling to meet others' expectations. Teasing the viewer with ambiguous evidence is one thing, but the film doesn't seem to know what truth is behind the curtain. Luce the man remains unknown, and Luce the movie a missed opportunity.

Production companies: Dream Factory Group, Altona Filmhaus
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriters: JC Lee, Julius Onah
Producers: John Baker, Julius Onah, Andrew Yang
Executive producers: Rob Feng, Amber Wang, JC Lee
Director of photography: Larkin Seiple
Production designer: Lisa Myers
Costume designer: Keri Langerman
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
Composers: Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury
Casting director: Jessica Kelly
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Sales: Kristen Figeroid, Endeavour Content

109 minutes