Luce is the type of small-scale drama audiences haven’t seen in a while – it’s such a satisfying reunion.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the title role, a privileged honour student who is a miraculous public speaker. His adoptive parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) encourage him, as do his peers and the school’s administration, but his history teacher Ms. Harriet Wilson (Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer) holds distain towards Luce. It’s a clashing relationship that’s shrugged off by Luce and his family, until Harriet reaches out to Luce’s mother. A troubling report written by Luce about the beneficial factors of violence during conflict (as inspired by the practices and theories of political revolutionary Frantz Fanon) has Ms. Wilson concerned about the school’s alleged role model. The paper sends off a ripple effect of discussions about intent, which also relates to an incident that happened at a recent party Luce attended as well as an additional discovery made in Luce’s locker.

J.C. Lee’s screenplay is filled with rich, relevant exchanges, but most of the dynamics are told through reactions and silence (accompanied by a chilling score by Annihilation composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury). Watts and Roth, who carry over their parental chemistry from Michael Haneke’s remake of Funny Games (2008), do a terrific job engaging with the film’s confrontational nature, while also hinting at their own unresolved issues through interpretive glances. While Luce’s parents carry the drama, the dynamic between Luce and Harriet adds the film’s riveting tension. Harrison Jr. and Spencer are fantastic together as they challenge each other with individual intimidation. A specific debate during school hours between the student and teacher is a highlight in the film, filled with menacing double entendres and captivating characterizations.

Luce is an unforgettably tense film from director Julius Onah. Although I can’t comment on his previous film, The Cloverfield Paradox, I hope Luce inspires the filmmaker to continue making more compelling character dramas.


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