Luce (2019), begins with the title character giving a speech to his school about how his parents have provided him with everything he needs to find success in his life and high-school career. He looks at his parents with clear love and admiration.
The film tells the story of a black boy – Luce ( Kelvin Harrison Jr.) – raised by two white parents Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), who adopted him from a war-torn Eritrea, where he was about to become a child soldier. After extensive therapy, Luce has grown into a stellar student, and member of society. After Luce’s teacher – Harriet (Octavia Spencer) – exposes a paper that Luce wrote from the perspective of a controversial historical figure, his parents begin to question if their son is truly who they think he is.
Through a winding road of plot points and powerful performances, Luce borders the line between thriller, and family drama. Director Julius Onah pulls out such harrowing performances from his ensemble cast that you can’t help but feel for each and every character in this story. Kelvin Harrison Jr is the stand-out, exuding a harrowing hopelessness that puts him in the ranks of the acting veterans he’s coupled with. Harrison Jr, perfectly portrays a boy who feels at odds in his life, trying to balance the person he wants to be and the person society wants to mold him into. Along with the performances, is Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow’s score – which borders the line between genres as well. The track “Luce’s Theme,” weaves in and out, its whining drone adding to the melancholy of the film – but becomes more tense as the film transitions. With the track “Skyhooker,” Salisbury and Barrow use bass and heavy breathing to up the tension within the film, the track repeating during the most constrained scenes.
It’s fitting – since the film is smack in the middle of two genres – that the characters in the film, all border the line between “protagonist and antagonist” during it’s run-time. Luce showcases four people at war with two parts of themselves; a proud mother, juggling with how far she will go for her child; a skeptical father, scorned and wishing for a normal life; a black child raised by white parents, not knowing where he stands within the world; and a teacher struggling with her view of how a student should behave in modern-day America.
Ultimately, Luce is the story of love and manipulation. As stated perfectly in Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 film Suspiria “Love and manipulation, […] share houses very often. They are frequent bedfellows.” One cannot be had without the other in some form. Whether it is romantic love or familial love, manipulation will be sure to linger close behind. The film closes the way it opens; Luce giving a speech to his high school. He looks at his parents with clear love and admiration – but it’s almost smug – and they look back at him with adoration, and ultimately fear.