Luce begins with a provocation. The film’s plot is set into motion by an essay that Luce Edgar (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a star student at a suburban high school, turns in to one of his teachers, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). Asked to write in the voice of a historical figure, Luce picked Frantz Fanon, the Martinican philosopher who said violence was sometimes morally necessary in the struggle against colonialism. Luce’s choice of subject is charged, and his writing alarms Wilson, even as Luce insists that he was merely doing his homework as assigned. But is he being judged for what he wrote, or for who he is?
That’s the edgy question that drives Luce, directed by Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox) and based on a play by J. C. Lee, who co-wrote the movie script with Onah. Though the title character’s writing is presented as incendiary, Onah’s film is more of a series of teasing prods, one that seeks to challenge the audience but shies away from shocking them. Luce spends too much time presenting a puzzle for viewers to solve and, in doing so, neglects the human drama underneath.
Luce was adopted from Eritrea when he was 7 years old by Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts). Little detail is provided about the boy’s early life, aside from vague references to how his new guardians helped him deal with childhood trauma. The people around Luce view him as a model student who embodies the American dream: He’s a refugee who overcame great challenges to become the valedictorian of his high-school class. His confrontational paper on Fanon shatters that charming image for Wilson. There are circumstantial reasons for the teacher to be concerned about Luce despite his good grades (most notably that a bag of fireworks was found in his gym locker). But Luce has an excuse for everything, and usually a plausible one, to the extent that even his hand-wringing liberal parents don’t know whether to defend or discipline their son. The mysteriousness of someone’s personality is an unusual hook for a thriller, but that’s exactly what Onah is going for, forcing the audience to join Wilson in dissecting Luce’s every facial expression and change in tone for hints of his true intentions.
Sometimes, it works. Both Harrison and Spencer shine in an early scene during which Wilson asks Luce about the point of the essay, and he drops his easygoing persona and becomes more directly argumentative and cold. Onah pushes the viewer to ponder how American society often forces “model immigrants” like Luce to underline their harmlessness with bland, chipper temperaments. Is his chillier side a sign of deep-seated anger, or merely a face he rarely gets to present to the world? Spencer personifies that question in Wilson’s extreme attention to detail, playing the teacher as a muted figure whose own motives can’t be fully accounted for. Harrison is equally good at portraying Luce’s aw-shucks facade and the more inscrutable man hiding behind it, but his skill with that duality isn’t enough to justify an hour-and-50-minute movie.
Luce simply doesn’t get far beyond its premise. The audience’s inability to actually read the controversial essay in question starts out as an advantage, because it’s fun to ponder how radical Luce’s writing must have been to raise a red flag. But as more discussions hinge on the contents of the paper, that remoteness becomes frustrating, and Wilson’s quest for answers comes off as obsessive and unnecessary. The debate over Luce’s bag of fireworks taps into fears of violence within American schools, but like Luce’s early childhood in Eritrea, it’s another topic that Onah wants to brush up against, not dig into.
The film is certainly an improvement on the director’s last project, The Cloverfield Paradox, a sci-fi effort that was awkwardly crowbarred into the Cloverfield franchise for little more than brand recognition. Onah’s skill with turning pages of meandering dialogue into a performance that’s implicitly threatening is impressive, and there are moments in Luce that crackle with energy. But by the end of the film, viewers might not feel provoked so much as led in circles to a conclusion that can’t do justice to the story’s fiery setup.