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'Luce': Enlightening
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
02:28PM / Thursday, September 05, 2019
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"It's complicated."
Thus spake Luce Edgar, heretofore the brilliant and handsome apple of every teacher's eye at his high school in Arlington, Va., when the senior's stellar reputation suddenly comes into question. Guilty or not of the swirling accusations, rumors and innuendoes, Kelvin Harrison Jr.'s superbly sculpted BMOC speaks volumes about the perception of stature. The predicament in which he finds himself is but one of numerous subplots that writhe, conjoin and impressively coalesce into a highly dramatic meditation on the very essence of truth itself.
Director Julius Onah, who co-wrote the screenplay with J.C. Lee, puts the tension level to the metal, intriguingly casting aspersions like so many crumbs upon the water, and in the process testing our ability to separate cogent facts from those that have been artfully manipulated. Shades of "Anatomy of a Murder" (1959) in that all is not what it seems to be, and that hardly anyone immersed in the nitty-gritty of the surreptitious goings-on can cast the proverbial first stone in good conscience, the scrutinization of our collective soul proves quite exhausting.
By the closing credits, my frustration at the absence of absolutes had me wishing that Socrates might hop on stage for a quick intervention about dealing with our fallibility. Hopefully I'd have pen and paper for his autograph. It'd look good right next to my Warhol.
The given is that, in the final analysis, this studious film makes its bones by stirring your gray matter into being the arbiter of its profound quandaries. And while not being a puzzle solver and much preferring a regular assembly line of easy answers in life, such occasional prompting to test one's mental acuity does have its heartening place. Maybe it's longer than I think before I'll be spilling porridge on my Ferrari-emblazoned bib.
In any case, while you'll be pressed into investigative service by "Luce," you won't know it right away. It's almost imperceptible. The trick is, the wolf aspect of the movie is sheathed in almost playful sheep's clothing as we are introduced to college-bound Luce, a survivor of the physical and psychological devastations of civil war in his native Eritrea. Adopted at age 9 by a well-to-do white couple portrayed by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, on first blush his rescue from being just another ugly statistic of man's inhumanity to man stands in baffling contrast to this testament of our goodness and altruism. He is happy and perfect. Or at least that's how most folks in his embracing society wish to see it.
But the ominousness seeps like vapor onto the scenario, and once the hints of something going on behind the Wizard of Oz's curtain are plied, we are tacitly asked, "What's wrong with this picture?" And just to keep both sides of our brain busy, "Luce" thickens the plot with a sociological update on race relations courtesy of the trials and tribulations that will ultimately challenge our astute, test-tube title character's reputation and inner resolve.
It's embroidered in the dialogue, stitched into the interactions; Reconstruction denied until the Civil Rights Act of Lyndon Johnson's administration, 100 years after freedom rang the wound of our land's original sin left open to be picked at by the vulture of bigotry.
I agree with the historians who say that Lincoln was too brilliant a politician to have let this happen, that if he had lived, those greedy and racist powers that be couldn't have turned former slaves into a second class of essentially indentured servants. But as it stands, the Civil War never really ended. It is fought every day, obvious in voter suppression, tokenism, symbolic gesture and a thousand other disingenuous acts of unkindness. And so, in the high school of the community where Luce has been plopped down as the poster child of progressivism, the politics of Babbittry are nonetheless played out in a microcosmic example of America's biggest eyesore.
It is a lot for a teenager to reckon with, especially if one's scars from the horrors of a war-torn childhood have healed only on the surface. But reminding of a young Sidney Poitier as he channels the inner strength it takes to be much more than is required of one's peers, Harrison is hip to the heroism. Scrambling to maintain balance as his parents suddenly question his true nature, his star-pupil status challenged by Octavia Spencer's complexly stern educator, Luce's plight imparts a consolation axiom whilst mulling the inscrutability of prejudice: Whether involved in a life-defining imbroglio or just trying to get good grades, a backpack isn't the heaviest thing a high-schooler has to shoulder.
"Luce," rated R, is a Neon release directed by Julius Onah and stars Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. Running time: 109 minutes
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