First Hit: I left the theater slightly confused about this film, and today, the following day, I’m still confused.
The confusion about this film is around the question; what was the coalesced point?
To set the stage, Luce is a young black senior in High School. His parents Amy and Peter Edger (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth respectively) adopted Luce as a seven-year-old orphan boy from a war-torn country. Amy couldn’t pronounce his name, so Peter suggested giving him a new name, they came up with Luce, which means light.
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is smart, and from the beginning of the film, he’s shown in this light by always doing his homework, getting excellent grades, being head of the debate team, and giving amazing speeches. Despite this, there is a sense and feeling that all this is a show by Luce, that there is an underlying agenda. So what is it?
This film touches on multiple issues, but because it doesn’t focus on one, the point is never crystallized.
Is the film about Harriet Wilson’s (Octavia Spencer) perceived dislike for Luce and others? After completing a writing assignment where the students were to take on a character and create a story, Luce chose to write about revolution and violence. Upon reading this, Wilson goes into his locker, finds and removes a bag filled with illegal fireworks. Attempting a discussion with Luce turns into an antagonistic argument. Discussing this with Amy, Wilson shares her concern that something may be going on with Luce and that they need to pay attention.
Amy and Peter’s discussion of this issue leads to highlighting some of the difficulties in their relationship through how they each attempt to elicit the truth from Luce but fail. His response is that he loves the subject of the class but Wilson is out to get and demean people.
That Wilson is black, Luce is black, and Luce’s closest friends are of mixed races. Was the film about racism? Yes and no. The film talks about racism, and in a scene when Luce enters his teacher’s home, Wilson gives him a sure fired lecture on what it means to be black and black in today’s society. So is this what the film is about?
Is the film about the truth? The film addresses fact in multiple ways, from the absence of telling or sharing information to outright lies. When Amy and Peter attempt to get information about the paper, and even the fireworks from Luce, there is a dance of misguided parries of questions. That Amy and Peter speak being truthful, the not sharing of the information they know with Luce is deceitful in its own way. When Amy and Peter lie in front of Wilson and the school principal, truth flies out the window.
Is the film about manipulation and control? Towards the end of the film, Wilson brings this subject out into the open by stating that Luce might be manipulating all of their behaviors. This is a good step in the movie because I, and maybe others in the audience, suspect this from the very beginning. However, Luce, when needing to seem sincere and apologetic, he makes his behavior very believable.
There are examples (or instances) of manipulation, one being with Luce’s possible girlfriend Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). At one point, Amy seeks to speak with Stephanie about what happened to her that caused Wilson to demean her in class. Stephanie begins telling a story about an event at a party. Her telling the story is powerfully believable. But was it real or was this really manipulation of Amy by Stephanie? Or, was all of this created by Luce? Was any of this genuine, part of it correct, or was the subject a way of manipulating people?
When Wilson queues up Stephanie to share the truth of a sexual incident at a meeting with Amy, Peter, Luce, and the school principal, what happens appears to be manipulated. And is it manipulation by Luce when he calls Amy “mother” or “Amy” based on what is going on at that moment?
The whole film is always on the edge of sharing the truth about Luce, the strain between Amy and Peter about adopting versus having their own child. The law around the searching personal property, how some people seem to have a light shined on them naturally, or is it really earned? How race factors into perceptions of people.
The ending gives little clue to the real intent of the film and only slightly more about Luce.
Harrison Jr. is very successful at creating an enigma of a person. His smooth transitions in a single scene from accepted kindness to a penetrating stare and back again were excellent. Watts was solid in this role as a mother, protector, and caring, engaged parent. Roth was fascinating as the father who carried resentment of not having his own child but also loving his adopted son, Luce. Spencer was almost as enigmatic as Luce. At times, I believed she had a slight grudge, and at other times, she felt thoroughly sincere. Bang was convincing in her telling the story of an incident to Amy, yet also elusive in what her true feelings were. J.C. Lee wrote the screenplay from his play. I’m not sure why I ended up with confusion after seeing this film. Was the basis of my confusion the screenplay or the direction by Julius Onah.
Overall: The film had promise, and I’m not sure what it delivered.