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Fortunate son

Privilege, race and trust are front and center in Luce

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Luce


The titular high school student in the indie drama Luce, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., has everything going for him. He’s academically impressive, an all-star athlete, and the apple of his adoptive parents’ eyes. But it’s not all scholarships and rainbows in this adaptation of the JC Lee play of the same name. 

Luce is a young black man who seems to be the living embodiment of teenage exceptionalism. His teammate (played by rapper Astro) compares him to President Obama. But Luce’s contribution to a class assignment raises the suspicions of his teacher, Mrs. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). When Mrs. Wilson alerts his adoptive parents, Peter and Amy (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), their picture-perfect idea of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea at the age of seven, is suddenly called into question, leading to a confrontation that leaves everyone shaken and uncertain.

For a film that uses transracial adoption as a plot device, that element is the least of the broad-stroked issues Luce attempts to tackle in its 104 minute runtime. One can’t sit through Luce without feeling like its overall thesis was cherry-picked from a weekly subscription to The Atlantic. It is the cinematic embodiment of a longreads.com article examining the conflicted perils of Ivy League students living under the microscope of social media and academic achievement. 

Luce does feature an assemblage of great performances. Central to the film are Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Luce and Octavia Spencer as Mrs. Wilson. Spencer and Harrison certainly elevate the film, yet even their playful cat-and-mouse histrionics aren’t enough to decamp Luce from its more stage-y aspects. 

Like an overly rehearsed valedictorian’s speech trying to say too much, Luce feels encumbered with peeling back the curtain of racial tension, suburban privilege and exceptionalism. High-achieving students and the equally high expectations they’re often burdened with, bourgeois parents and the idealized image of their perfect privileged kids, teachers both adoring their engaged students all while looking upon them with an eye of suspicion that they’re certainly up to 
no good.

While this cinematic adaptation certainly benefits from atmospheric cinematography from Larkin Seiple and unsettling score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury—both also contributed to Alex Garland’s heady sci-fi film Annihilation—Luce is never able to fully shake the theatricality of a play that wants to cram all kinds of themes of race, modern suburban malaise, anxiety and pathology. It’s not just the kids that aren’t alright in this release from Neon—the theatrical distribution arm of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse chain of cinemas—Luce offers loads to ponder while feeling like it never really had much to say in the first place. 

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