The release of Trey Edward Schults’ third film, Waves, could finally be the one to cast a long overdue spotlight on the talent of Kelvin Harrison Jr. Strong turns in the likes of It Comes at Night and Monsters and Men have already demonstrated the range of his abilities, although the films barely made a splash at the box office. Harrison Jr.’s growth as an actor continues in Julius Onah’s Luce, a complicated psychodrama that upturns race, class and gender politics.
Onah’s third feature is an adaptation of playwright J.C. Lee’s highly acclaimed off-broadway play of the same name. It’s a film that will dare to challenge many of your own preconceptions about the image we create of others and the stereotypes and expectations placed upon them. Lee also assisted with scriptwriting duties, maintaining the story’s intention to keep you off balance and unsure as to where the truth really exists - although even when it appears the roots remain muddily disguised.
Harrison’s performance as Luce asks you to keep a close eye on a character who on first appearances couldn’t be more clear cut. He’s a straight A student and the jewel in his high school’s crown despite living in America for only 10 years after being adopted by white parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth). His early life was spent as a child soldier in then war-torn Eritrea and his growth into an intelligent, charming young man (labelled Obama by a friend) is a remarkable recovery and testament to his determination to create a better life for himself.
Question marks about Luce’s character start to emerge when a red flag is raised by one of his teachers, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer). While she believes there are grounds for concern about Luce’s state of mind, her overzealous nature suggests there may be more to her accusations than simply trying to keep a student on track. It challenges Luce’s parents to consider how they view their son and opens up a can of worms that threatens to infest a stable home life.
For those hesitant to commit due to Onah’s last disastrous outing with The Cloverfield Paradox, you can rest assured this is a different ball game entirely. It takes the premise of what could be seen as a simple misunderstanding to blow it up in all its ugly detail under the microscope of modern day social politics. Luce remains unerringly calm through it all, able to maintain the image that has seen him become a heralded school debater and track star, while around him the adults are left to battle their own consciences to decipher if he is who he says, or what they want him to be.
It’s the twists and turns of peeling back the layers of the characters that balance this on a knife-edge between drama and thriller. The suspense evolves from being kept in the dark about everyone’s motives and whether they are fooling those around them or just themselves. The complicated narrative of everyone’s life is often simplified to help us understand how to interact with each other. As a Black student excelling in almost every way possible while friends make mistakes that categorise them as typical failures, Luce perhaps represents more to others than he does to himself - and his hidden complexities might just reveal why.
With a vastly experienced cast prominently featuring the likes of Watts, Spencer and Roth, the pressure is on Harrison Jr. to deliver a dominant performance in the lead role. And it’s a task he’s more than capable of fulfilling with nuance, communicating facets of his personality with the smallest of details without ever giving too much away as to what he’s thinking at any given moment. Watts is equally impressive as a mother torn to shreds with doubt and confusion, while the parting words delivered by the always dependable Spencer suggest Luce may still have quite a lot to learn.
The presence of Geoff Barrow and Ian Salisbury on composer duties further underscores the deceptive nature of the narrative, filling the air with an array of strange noises to create an off-kilter tension that lingers. It’s a film that wants you to remain as unsure of yourself as you are of the people it introduces - all the while insisting you fill in the gaps and provide the answers. Whether they’re the right ones or not will depend on the journey you’ve taken to reach them.
Luce opens in UK cinemas on November 8.