LUCE is less a film than a political dialectic on race and class in these United States, and a brilliant, exquisitely performed one at that. Told with a deliberate, sometimes maddening ambiguity, it challenges the audience at every turn about where the truth lies, and the limits of familial loyalty. By the end, not every question has been answered, but that was never the point.
The eponymous Luce (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), a former child-soldier in Eritrea, is a model student at his Virginia high school. Valedictorian, tapped to be the captain of his track team, and the pride of his adoptive parents of ten years, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth), with whom he has a seemingly comfortable relationship. After delivering a speech, the school’s principal dotes on Luce, and one of his teachers, Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer), makes a point of praising him to his parents. On the surface everything is ideal, but a chance remark about Miss Wilson by Luce on the drive home hints that there is trouble. A phone call from her the next day asking Amy to meet brings the news that a paper Luce has written may be a symptom that the traumas he suffered as a child have not been resolved, and, further, and the illegal fireworks that she found when searching Luce’s locker supports her suspicions. As with so much else that will unfold, the interpretation is open depending on who is doing the interpreting.
The film becomes a study in how each character shades the truth from each other and from themselves. As Amy puts it at one point, not telling is not the same thing as lying, a distinction that is technically correct, but still glib. A technicality useful only for an apologist desperate to maintain the image she has constructed of a child for whom she has sacrificed much in order to give him a good with her and Peter, and a future full of promise. Miss Wilson’s judgement may or may not be influenced by her sister, Rosemary (Marcia Stephanie Blake in a complicated, heartbreaking performance), who is struggling with mental health issues, and has been abandoned by everyone else in their family.
Those constructs, or rather the reality of them, form the suspense at the core of LUCE. Resentful of being cast as a saint by his parents and a model of scholastic and racial perfection by Miss Wilson, we are left to guess by his actions and affect who he really is. Conclusions that tell us more about ourselves than Luce himself. Harrison’s performance is perfectly calibrated so that Luce can be all things to all people, including us, his denials interpreted with equal justification as artful conniving or genuine innocence. When he demonstrates to Amy his ability to be surprised, it’s terrifying in the context of the moment, but also flawless in its disingenuous presentation.
Ultimately truth becomes something too dangerous, too powerful, for the characters to face. A concept aptly demonstrated when a quiet chat at a kitchen table turns scathing in its brutality when the wrong phrase is dropped, and a relationship is irrevocably changed.
LUCE does explain the why of what we see play out on screen, but tells us little definitively about the who, what, and when of it. Some viewers may find this an insurmountable obstacle. For those willing to embrace the conceit, though, this is a revelatory exercise is self-reflection designed to disquiet as well as enlighten.