Luce by J.C. Lee, based on his play
Nine out of 10
Luce benefits from a very smart, intriguing, if bewildering for this viewer who was at a loss to see what was really going on through successive stages of the development of the plot, and an outstanding cast, with Naomi Watts as Amy Edgar, Tim Roth playing her husband, Peter Edgar, the superb Octavia Spencer in the complicated role of Harriet Wilson and last but not least, the promising, talented Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the title role of a teenager who seems to be the hero, only to flip and then appear as the ultimate, cruel, devious antihero, responsible for ruining a life.
A disclaimer might be in order though, for to this cinephile it was not clear to the end – hence the liberty to mention the finale, for there is a feeling that yes, this is what happened, but as to why, is there a serious caveat, an immense exculpating circumstance though? – what is the exact responsibility of the villain and to what extent is he ready to take his revenge, need to affirm his belief and convictions…
This is a very articulate, so bright as to be nearly suspicious young man, a star of his class and high school, embarrassed at one point not by the harm he has done, but by the fact that his example is so much emphasized, he is mentioned as a role model to the point where he attracts the wrath of others and especially and individual who is ejected as a result of his misbehavior and the drugs they found on him and who challenges the protagonist and asks or invites him…’would you trade places with me?’
Luce Edgar has come all the way from Eritrea and has been adopted by white folks who live under the impression that their son is an absolute star, destined for immense success, encouraged as they are by the reports from school, his behavior, the fact that they say he has overcome, after duress, many – not many, but a multitude – of hours of therapy to put behind the years of psychological and perhaps physical torture he had suffered in his childhood in Eritrea.
However, alarm bells are sounded by one of his teachers, Harriet Wilson aka the sensational, balanced, subtle Octavia Spencer, who talks with the mother, Amy Edgar aka Naomi Watts, about a disturbing paper, an essay written by her son, in which he took the role of a fundamentalist, a man whose belief is that enemies must be crushed, literally in a bloodbath, a troublesome, gruesome perspective that the young star pupil appeared to embrace, if only for the purposes of the theme which the class had been given, but worrying, if not terrifying nevertheless…
In the climate that they have in America – where they have chosen, albeit with three million less votes in the popular count, a giant fool a massive idiot for whom republicans are still ready to vote, except for a meager 5 or 6 percent – with shootings and mass murders in high schools and elsewhere, teachers have to be very careful and notice any sign of disturbance, inclination to violence in any of their students and thus Harriet Wilson was justified in following this particular lead.
When she searched the locker of the boy who wrote about killing people and destroying adversaries, she found some illegal and very dangerous fireworks, which, if fired, could have the effect of a shotgun, could penetrate a door – or was it a wall? – and cause great damage, with the potential to injure others or even worse and she entrusts the parent with this information, without alerting the principal or anyone else, with the demand that the mother talks to the boy and resolves this disturbing issue.
The result is that the hero or antihero speaks about behavior that incriminates – for him and soon for his family – the teacher, who seems to have placed someone else on the spot…Stephanie Kim would enter the frame and her story, shared with Amy Edgar, would cause the audience to be ever more confused as to the role of the star- student in all of this, seeing as the girl has been – what would be the word they use in America for this now? – harassed, abused, manhandled by three of the boys, until Luce shows up and then he tells her to keep this a secret…but is it to cover this up for his friends or to save the girl from more torment?
He would use her with ruthlessness – unless of course, the teacher is not mischievous and hostile, as the antihero keeps claiming…indeed, this viewer kept waiting for a Reversal of Fortune, a twist in the plot which would henceforth show Ms. Wilson in her ‘true colors’, and we find that the boy had been innocent all along and the machinations of the adult and of the clever plot just played games with us…only it does not happen.
When Stephanie comes to see the same teacher, we wait for an incredible revelation and she talks to the professor about the rape and a testimony is prepared, with the principal waiting for a major breakthrough in the case, in front of the parents gathered to learn about the latest, abhorrent developments, only to see that the girl has disappeared and it was all yet another scheme of the main character whose brilliant mind seems to be used from one point on only to pay imagined affronts, in a personal vendetta that knows no bounds, appears to involve even the deranged sister of the teacher and everything else surrounding the woman that has become a mortal enemy of a…devil.
Yes, the boy has had to go through so much in Eritrea and that is the explanation for what happens, together with an extraordinary mind that is used alas for ghastly mind games, abuse, insults, destruction…just as stated in the essay that he has presented in class, by the presence of the fireworks and then by the fire started at one point to incriminate somebody else…
This is a formidable motion picture.