'Luce' film review: Provocative, incisive family drama indicts expectations & stereotypes

'Luce' film review: Provocative, incisive family drama indicts expectations & stereotypes

Penetrating and intense, the riveting family drama "Luce" (opening in additional select cities Aug. 16) leverages conflicted self-identity - and how even the most carefully curated persona can get completely upended with preconceptions and assumptions.

In short: An affluent couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) is forced to reconsider their accomplished adopted son Luce's (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) image after a strict teacher (Octavia Spencer) makes a discovery in his locker.

The film's opening scenes are everything to this family drama - they firmly establish how Luce's parents, teachers and friends perceive him: as a role-model student and a successful athlete. He's lauded for his achievements ... but not necessarily for his character. And the film hinges on everyone abruptly questioning Luce's character, based on evidence that is either completely circumstantial or potentially disturbing.

Harrison Jr. is one of the great cinema revelations of 2019. He radiates charming confidence, with a brimming resentment just below the surface. He holds his own against a trio of Academy Award nominated actors with a brilliant performance that vacillates between poised and internally anguished. Harrison Jr's characterization exudes an intelligence that makes his every word and seemingly insignificant action meaningful.

"Luce" is indictment of the American dream, the self-created identity and the tenuous nature of perception and assumptions. Despite cultivating a track record of being the embodiment of the ideal model student, Luce is all too aware how fragile even his present and future are, despite his status as a heralded student at a prestigious private school. He's seen people around him lose everything. He's works hard to achieve scholastic and athletic success - yet, Luce knows it can all be undone with a just a few assumptions, especially given his troubled childhood. He is simultaneously a self-made man and the product of expectations put upon him - expectations that lead to assumptions about his character, both positive and negative.

This story about a kid who writes a troubling essay quickly escalates to a thematically complex narrative with no easy answers. "Luce" works on a basic level because it posits that he might be a deeply troubled young man wearing the mask of a composed soon-to-be-Ivy League undergrad -- or he could just be the victim of circumstances and unwarranted, racially driven suspicious. And as the film progresses, "Luce" becomes less about his involvement with the inciting locker incident - and ponders what Luce himself symbolizes to his peers. This analysis of how Luce sees himself and how others perceive Luce is the strength of this film: what his success means in the context of his childhood as an orphan living in war-torn Africa as well as how other African Americans treat the fairly straight-laced Luce, at one point calling him not "black black." And in the end, what lingers after watching this film is how uncompromising it is in its morally grey views.

Final verdict: Powered by a strong lead performance, a strong ensemble cast and murky social themes, "Luce" is a twisting drama that doubles as a provocative take on race and identity.

Score: 4/5

"Luce" is now playing in select cities Aug. 16. This drama has a running time of 109 minutes and is rated R for language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use.

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