Review: High school thriller 'Luce' a heated power struggle
Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts and Kelvin Harrison Jr. star in this tense drama about a star student and his clash with authority
A minefield of mental games based on expectations of race and identity in America, "Luce" is a simmering psychological thriller about power, lies, manipulation and, least of all, the truth.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. is magnificent as Luce, whose parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) adopted him from war-torn Eritrea when he was 7 years old. Now a star athlete and soon-to-be valedictorian of his northern Virginia high school, his spotless scholastic record is threatened by a clash with his history teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer).
Wilson is disturbed by a paper Luce authors, and is further upset when she searches his locker and finds a paper bag full of illegal fireworks. What's he planning, and what is this seemingly picture perfect student capable of?
Amy comes to the immediate defense of her son, but has her own questions that quietly away eat at her. Peter is similarly concerned, but his caustic reaction to the situation causes ripples in their marriage.
The school principal (Norbert Leo Butz) has his own motivations for standing by his star student: Luce's success story makes the school look good. And he's willing to turn a blind eye to whatever might potentially disrupt that narrative.
"Luce" is based on the play by J.C. Lee and is directed with steadily increasing intensity by Julius Onah ("The Cloverfield Paradox"). Watts and Roth are dynamite as Luce's parents — the pair also played a couple in 2007's "Funny Games" — and the spare electronic score by "Ex Machina" and "Annihilation's" Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury gives the film a creepy, spacious undercurrent.
Only once does "Luce" veer into schlock horror movie territory, but Onah corrects his course and gets it back on track. This is a powerful film that shows how far some will go to protect the reality they choose to believe. It gets into your head and stays there.
Rated R: for language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use
Running time: 109 minutes