Luce is an athlete and a star student, respected by faculty and friends. He’s soon to be valedictorian of his class. His success is particularly celebrated because Luce was adopted from Eritrea at the age of 10. He seems to have made a miraculous transition, overcome his tragic past.
So it’s a little jarring to his adoptive parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) when his teacher calls them in with some news. Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) shows them an essay he wrote supporting violence as a necessary means for freeing colonized people. Considering his background (child soldier?), Ms. Wilson thinks it’s prudent to search his locker, and presents them with her findings: illegal fireworks. With school security being such a high priority, Ms. Wilson knows that if anyone else were to find these, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) would be in hot water. She hopes his parents can intervene at home. However, Amy and Peter are loathe to bring it up, wanting to preserve the trusting relationship that was built with such difficulty. This seems like a relatively small blip in an otherwise unblemished record. But Luce finds the evidence and isn’t happy about the doubt or the suspicions of either his parents or his teacher.
Things escalate from there of course. Ms. Wilson’s accusations accumulate, and their repercussions amplify. Ms. Wilson is unrelenting but other authority figures are unwilling to compromise Luce’s stellar reputation. It’s her world against his, Luce’s parents trapped somewhere in between, wanting to protect their son but also wondering if he’s truly escaped his past. What is the right move? And to whom are they obligated?
The film is disorienting and Harrison’s performance is sufficiently nuanced to leave us guessing: is he being profiled or is he capable of some very exacting vengeance? The film plays with stereotypes and symbols in a way that’s deliciously tangled, addressing racism in a way that reflects its complexity and inextricability. Luce excels at sustained tension and menace, leaving the audience without its footing.
This chilling drama will have you weighing the costs of conformity, considering the limits of parental responsibility, subverting the notion of assimilation. Luce is uncomfortable but essential.