Luce review: Kelvin Harrison, Jr. shines alongside the best in the business

Psychological thriller Luce touches on societal expectations, race, family and mental illness. You will be hearing about this movie come awards season.

Earlier this year when talking to a well-connected critic on Twitter I asked what movie I should have on my radar for later in the year. He named Luce and when I saw that one of my favorite rising stars, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., was the lead I moved it to the top of my list. Luce hit select theaters this weekend and I went a little out of my way to ensure I saw it immediately. It easily lived up to the hype.

Rounding out the cast are Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Ma), Academy Award nominees Naomi Watts (The Impossible, 21 Grams), and Tim Roth (Rob Roy, The Hateful Eight), and a strong supporting cast. Luce is Director Julius Onah’s third feature film (The Girl is in Trouble and The Cloverfield Paradox) and if he wasn’t on your radar before he definitely should be now.

The Story

Luce is a film about a young man who is the poster boy for the American dream. This is spoken aloud several times during the movie. He was adopted from war-torn Eritrea by a well-off white family and has become the model student and athlete. He’s buttoned down, squeaky clean, brilliant and has a million dollar smile.

Despite growing up as a child soldier (it’s never directly addressed but is mentioned in passing) he has come to America and looks to be on his way to an Ivy League school. He can be anything he wants to be. It sounds great but when we meet Luce he seems to be realizing that something isn’t right about his life.

There have been a few events that have affected his peer circle that don’t sit right with him. This leads him down a dangerous path that his teacher Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer) catches onto early. She attempts to intervene and save him but this begins a cat and mouse game that begins to look like it will end badly for someone.

Besides the two at odds, Luce’s adoptive parents Amy and Peter (Watts and Roth respectively), are made aware and have to wrestle with their own issues. They know his past and they have to decide if he is the kid that they molded or if the child soldier is still in there. This causes issues within their marriage as well.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr.

A relative unknown by most moviegoers, Harrison hit my radar in 2018’s Jinn. He has a quiet, but strong presence on-screen and does a great job of acting with his eyes even when he’s talking. While watching Luce, we see a young man presenting himself like a young Barack Obama but in his eyes you can see that something, potentially something dangerous, looms beneath the surface. I couldn’t help but think he would make an amazing politician throughout the movie.

Harrison, matching wits with three Academy Award winning/nominated actors, looked like he was right at home. At no point did any of them overshadow him and it may have been the other way around. If you aren’t aware of the name now you most likely will be come award season. Harrison will be featured in another movie getting Oscar buzz later this year.

Waves, which is making waves at Telluride Film Festival, will be in theaters in November. Harrison will share the screen with Golden Globe winner Sterling K. Brown in that film.

Octavia Spencer. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Octavia Spencer

I didn’t mean to make this review about the acting but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance from Octavia Spencer. She can do no wrong (regardless as to how you felt about Ma) and she was at her best in Luce as well. Her character is the teacher who seems to know her power to influence lives. Her recent decisions have had dramatically negative effects on Luce’s friends and made him resent her.

It is these actions that cause Luce to start provoking her. Miss Wilson is no dummy though. She decides that she will play his game and beat him at it. Things become tense when the families become involved and the back and forth gets very personal.

Themes

At the core of Luce is the idea of societal expectations. The dynamic that Luce has noticed is a microcosm of what we see in American society. Luce sees himself as no different from his peers. They have the same interests and hobbies (the good and the bad), however the way society treats them is not the same. One of his peers makes a mistake and because he’s seen as being on a certain path, he doesn’t get a second chance. Meanwhile, when Luce makes a mistake there is a cover-up and he is protected.

When this is addressed it reminded me of the Brock Turner case. Turner’s case was a rare one of a rape with credible eye-witnesses. However, when it came time to sentence him, the judge went easy on him because he believed he had a future. It’s easy to say a kid who was not a scholarship athlete or came from poverty would not have gotten the same treatment.

Luce addresses the pressures that he receives from his parents to be the perfect investment, pressures from the school to be the perfect student, and pressures from society to be a model for what the perfect immigrant looks like.

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Overall

Luce brings some uncomfortable subjects to the table but doesn’t do so in a heavy-handed way. The movie lays those things out for you in a way that doesn’t allow you to deny their validity. It’s a conversation starter in that regard but also just a riveting psychological thriller when it comes to the battle between Luce and Miss Wilson. If you enjoy thinking movies, Luce should be on your list. If you’ve seen Luce, let us know what you walked away from the theater feeling.

Luce is available in select theaters now.