An all-star student with a potentially complex secret sows doubts among his parents, teachers and the audience. Who do you believe?
Luce is the boy most likely to succeed. He’s the star of the debating team, captain of the athletics team, and has the best academic grades. As a young person of colour adopted out of traumatic times in war-torn Africa by affluent, liberal white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) appears to have life sorted, and is grateful for his opportunities.
However his history teacher (Octavia Spencer) begins to wonder if things are truly as they seem when she reads a piece of homework he submitted to her, and brings it to his mother’s attention. From then on, the first two thirds of the film pose the question of who to believe. Does the revered history teacher hold some kind of grudge against her star student? Is Luce lying to everyone? Which of the parents do we agree with?
Luce is a film about identity and specifically the expectations held by different elements of society about young black men. It also explores how advantageous the notion of code switching can be; being able to become different things to different people requires a specific set of skills but can reap rewards if you can pull it off.
This main premise is really intriguing and works for a good chunk of the film, with the audience unsure who to side with, and sympathies constantly switching. Kelvin Harrison Jr at the centre is both chilling and magnetic in the title role, and it goes without saying that Octavia Spencer delivers as the under-pressure teacher.
But then Luce reaches a point where the mystery is just circling around itself and has nowhere to go anymore.
That’s also the point at which the thread using the alleged victim of a sexual assault in a conspiracy became extremely uncomfortable, and a seemingly incidental introduction of a person with mental health issues proved to be badly handled and actually unnecessary.
Luce starts well, and promises a lot – but when your audience starts to laugh in the final third and nothing remotely funny is happening, then it would appear that something has gone awry.