Review: Luce

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

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PLOT: Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the star pupil at his exclusive private school. He’s got a bright future ahead of him, even though he spent the first seven years of his life coming of age in a war-torn country. His two adoptive parents (Naomi Watts & Tim Roth) couldn’t be happier with how he’s come along, but when one of his teachers (Octavia Spencer) raises some red flags, the couple must consider whether or not they know Luce as well as they think they do.

REVIEW: LUCE is a provocative piece of work for director Julius Onah. Until now, he’s been best known for directing THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX, but that messy flick (which infamously got dumped to Netflix) didn’t do its director justice. This is good enough that one could reasonably expect Onah’s career to skyrocket over the next few years.

It’s pretty compelling stuff, with no easy answers. Kelvin Harrison Jr., who made a strong debut in the underrated IT COMES AT NIGHT, makes Luce a complicated character. On the surface, he’s cool, calm and collected. He’s impeccably mannered, a straight-A student and his school’s valedictorian, adored by his parents and even the school’s principal (Norbert Leo Butz – who recently stole scenes as Paddy Chayefsky in “Fosse/Verdon”). After all, what’s not to like? Given that he grew up in a war zone, and may well have been a child soldier, he’s come a long way – but Octavia Spencer – as his history teacher – is unimpressed. She thinks there’s something more to Luce, with a paper he wrote from the perspective of a warlord, and some illegal fireworks in his locker enough for her to raise some red flags with his adoring mom, convincingly played by Naomi Watts.

Onah never really lets the audience off the hook too easily here. It’s obvious from the get-go that Luce has some secrets, but his actions are left vague and ambiguous for much of the running time. It’s as if Onah wants to put us right in the shoes of his parents – in that we know something’s not right but we’re willing to ignore the red flags because we like him and he has so much potential.

It’s a tough part for Harrison, who has to give Luce a charismatic quality, but keep enough mystery hidden away that we never quite know what he’s capable of. He’s smooth and sophisticated, but we also see him breakdown in his more introspective moments, such as when he takes a story that he’s spinning as aspirational – his renaming as Luce- and spins it into a tale of him being denied his culture.

tim roth, kelvin harrison jr, naomi watts, luce

So is Luce a sociopath? You never really have him pegged one way or the other, but Onah keeps the mystery unfolding in a highly absorbing way, especially when one of Luce’s fellow students, Andrea Bang’s Stephanie Kim, gets involved, with elements of sexual coercion and rape working their way into the story, although the way this plays out is atypical. Watts, Bang, and Harrison are all excellent, but so is the subtle work by Tim Roth, as Luce’s dad, who’s not as quick to believe his son as his more adoring wife. Octavia Spencer also does really good work as Luce’s suspicious teacher, who’s not without her hang-ups, and may not be as clear-cut a heroine as you’d think given the premise.

One thing that bears mentioning is that while LUCE is sold as something of a thriller, that’s not really what it is. If you’re expecting that kind of movie, you’ll likely walk away disappointed. However, if you’re in the mood for an absorbing domestic drama that tackles some weighty subject matter, this is the film for you. It’s provocative in the best way and well worth checking out.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.