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Wednesday, September 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: ‘Luce’ brilliantly manipulates identity, code-switching in suspenseful family drama

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in "Luce." (Jon Pack / Neon)
Kelvin Harrison Jr. in "Luce." (Jon Pack / Neon)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

Things are never what they seem in Julius Onah’s “Luce,” a tightly wound fable of modern morality and identity adapted from a play by J.C. Lee, who co-wrote the film’s script with Onah. Lee and Onah take the complex, performer-driven story of a scandal at a Northern Virginia high school involving a star student and make it supremely cinematic, concealing and revealing critical information to create an incredibly suspenseful and riveting family drama.

The centrifugal force at the center is the brilliant young actor Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays high school golden boy Luce Edgar. When we first encounter him, he’s delivering a slick speech at an assembly, each pause and smile perfectly timed. It’s political poise. We want desperately to believe in it because Luce has a tragic background.

His parents, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), adopted him as a kid from war-torn Eritrea. There’s a suggestion as to his violent childhood and the therapy and recovery he’s gone through, but the specifics are never laid out, references to it simply deployed in conversations like landmines.

There’s only one person who doesn’t buy what Luce is selling: his history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). According to him, the stern teacher holds her black and minority students to a different standard, and he chafes against her identity politics.

Tension turns to suspicion and all-out war when Wilson confronts Amy with a troubling discovery she’s made searching Luce’s locker alongside a paper espousing radical political philosopher Frantz Fanon. The fallout from this meeting, along with the miscommunication, secrets, lies and misplaced assumptions that go along with it, precipitate a turn of events that spirals out of control.

But it’s not just Luce’s high school career or college prospects that start to sour. Amy starts to question her charming, hard-working, seemingly perfect adopted son. And Onah asks us to go on that journey with her, although we’re never placed exactly in Amy’s bewildered purview. As she delves into discovering the truth, she plunges into the secret world of teenage life, carefully compartmentalized on Snapchat, kept far away from squeaky clean transcripts.

Harrison Jr., who stunned in his breakout role “It Comes at Night,” delivers a tour de force performance that doesn’t just stand up to his towering co-stars but nearly eclipses them. As Luce, his expressions smoothly vacillate like comedy and tragedy Commedia dell’Arte masks, sliding into place for whatever he needs to be at that moment in time, performing and code-switching according to whatever any audience needs him to be.

“Luce,” the film, is a contained drama that contains the whole nation, where every character represents an aspect of how race, class and justice collide in this country. But Luce, the character, also is saddled with managing a slippery identity bridging countries, continents, class and race. He’s the “Obama” of the high school. Is that representational responsibility too much to bear?

“Luce” pushes us to figure the truth out for ourselves but never makes it easy, in fact confounding what we thought to be true along the way. Onah crafts a film where we never know who or what to believe. And though we crave the truth, much like the real world, it’s never freely given.

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