It’s student versus teacher in the tense suburban thriller Luce, an intriguing if ultimately slight production from Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox). Featuring a star-studded cast that includes Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, and Tim Roth and an impressive turn by Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the title character, Luce serves as a somewhat unpredictable showpiece for raw talent.
The movie is about a white couple (Watts and Roth) whose seemingly perfect son Luce (Harrison Jr.), adopted from war-torn Eritrea as a child, becomes the target of suspicion by one of his high school’s teachers (Spencer) after he writes a paper expressing support for violence.
The plot seems innocuous enough, but Onah treats the material as if things could turn dangerous at any moment. He keeps you guessing, too, not only in the outcome of his story (based on the play by J.C. Lee) but even as to who the antagonists and protagonists are. Onah seems more than content at keeping his characters’ motivations and intentions a secret—does the teacher have a vendetta? Is Luce the malicious one? Is it all simply a matter of misinterpretation by both sides?
The story is complex and dynamic in its delivery, Onah’s willingness and intention to maintain a sense of unsettling dread constant from start to finish.
The cast chews up and spits out the material with glee, with Harrison Jr. particularly compelling. He toes a tricky line in which his character shifts from protagonist to antagonist and back again, often scene by scene, and pulls it off in impressive fashion. Spencer is terrific as well, though Onah seems more interesting in depicting the suddenly fragmented relationship between Watts and Roth than letting Spencer and Harrison Jr. go at it for prolonged periods of time.
As exhilarating and enthralling as Luce can be, Onah can’t quite bring it home. The story fades in its final minutes, the climax fizzling rather than exploding. Luce could have been powerful, but it ends with a shrug.
Luce is a worthwhile and unconventional thriller that boasts several excellent performances, but for a movie that needed to be a powerhouse throughout, it comes up just a little short.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.