by Kayla McCulloch on Aug 23, 2019

The single thing that connects Luce and The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) is director Julius Onah’s ability to start conversations with his films. If it weren’t for his name in the credit, there’s no indication that these features could have come from the same person — one’s a searing drama, the other’s the third entry in an ongoing series of science-fiction films. However, in spite of their thematic differences, both are surrounded by clouds of buzz. Dropped by surprise on last year’s Super Bowl Sunday, The Cloverfield Paradox was watched by nearly a million Netflix subscribers in a single night — critical opinions were mostly negative, but an overwhelming majority agreed that this release strategy was novel. Luce’s rollout is practically the opposite, premiering at Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and then receiving a limited release and steady expansion six months later. Whereas The Cloverfield Paradox got people talking because of its spontaneous distribution, Luce is bound to be controversial for its smorgasbord of hot topics.

By opening with a speech from disarmingly confident high-school student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the film presents the audience with all the information they’ll need going forward: Adopted from Eretria and effectively rescued from a future as a child soldier, Luce has undergone years of therapy under the doting eyes of his American parents, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, reunited as another married couple after Michael Haneke’s 2007 U.S. remake of Funny Games). Luce is now a model student and a star athlete, and it’s clear how much the school’s staff fawns over him. Well, everyone but his history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), that is. She’s the only one who seems to view his exceptional behavior as some sort of façade.

After one of her assignments calls for students to emulate an important historical figure’s key talking points, Luce’s paper from the perspective of a radical activist gives Ms. Wilson enough reasonable doubt to search his locker. As it turns out, her suspicion that Luce has the potential to be violent proves (apparently) correct, and a concerning discovery inside a paper bag results in a phone call home. This unleashes a storm front of paranoia and lies that sweeps up Luce, Ms. Wilson, and anyone closely associated with them. Slowly, family and friends begin to turn on one another as the general atmosphere of anxiety and distrust continues to spike.

This slow-burning discord is largely fueled by Luce’s subtext: Every main character embodies a different political archetype. As a young black male, Luce feels confined to either exceptionalism or failure, with no in-between. Amy, who drives a Toyota Prius and frequently voices concerns for social-justice issues, represents the modern upper-middle-class liberal. Peter, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about politics — he could be seen as representing the swath of American non-voters. Ms. Wilson constantly indulges in identity politics by singling out students of color during her American-history lectures, much to the disdain of Luce and his friend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). By trying to keep all this discourse under wraps, principal Dan Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) stands in for those in positions of power who turn a blind eye to the problems facing their constituency. The combination of competing interests and worldviews proves to be volatile.

Luce couldn’t succeed without the sheer amount of talent attached to the project. Watts and Roth make for a believable couple, perhaps because of their past collaboration. (After all, nothing could bring a pair of actors closer together better than co-starring in one of Haneke’s darkest features to date.) Their hopelessness and inexperience is palpable as the two bicker about how to handle the escalating tension in their home and at their son’s school. Spencer delivers an unhinged performance akin to the one she gave in Tate Taylor’s Ma (2019), toeing the line between deranged and reserved in a way that is uniquely her own. Harrison exhibits exceptional talent, especially for an up-and-comer. All four are pulling equal weight, a quadruple punch that bewilders and disorients the viewer relentlessly.

Although the characters and the actors portraying them are vital, it helps that director Onah employs a few unnerving stylistic flourishes throughout Luce. It’s unsurprising that the dialogue is calculated and the acting is top-notch — Onah and J.C. Lee adapted the script from the former writer’s original play, and the words the characters speak feel tightly crafted and controlled. Editor Madeleine Gavin’s jarring juxtapositions are what help this adaptation soar above and beyond a stage performance. Her cuts transport the viewer from Luce to Ms. Wilson to Amy and back again, often suddenly and without warning. Never knowing where the film’s gaze might go next heightens the looming sense of mistrust. Composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, the team behind Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014) and Annihilation (2018), only elevate this feeling. Their sound is abrasive and confrontational, just like the conversations unfolding onscreen.

Luce has plenty of moving parts, many of which it juggles quite well. Still, it would take a masterful director to balance everything perfectly, and Onah isn’t quite there yet, despite a respectable list of credits in just four short years. There’s no denying the impressive skill he brings to the table, but he doesn’t quite stick the landing on this complex story. Luce’s final moments feel like an ending that has a lot to say but doesn’t actually end up saying anything at all. The themes are crystal clear, but the solutions, if any, to the problems depicted in the film remain murky.  It’s one thing to leave the viewer with something to ponder, but it’s quite another to send them off confused about the real-world implications of such a politically and culturally charged story. Still, regardless of how ambiguous the film’s message might be, Luce is bound to initiate discussions.

Rating: B-