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Luce – Movie Review

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Luce – Movie Review

Rating: B- (Okay)

Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures

The concept of the school teacher with a strange, unexplained vendetta against certain students is a universal and relatable one. Luce attempts to explore that, along with several other topics. Director Julius Onah and co-writer J.C. Lee, adapting his own play, throw in multiple themes and ideas and while all are good ones, it becomes tricky when it comes to giving the proper amount of attention to developing them. The central plot point, focusing on a bitter rivalry between a straight-A student and a determined teacher, is the strongest. In between, the film touches on themes of race, favoritism, parental influence, mental health and educational responsibilities. There’s a lot to chew on.

Onah and Lee seem more interested in showing how teachers can build animosities and grudges against some of their students, either through difference of opinion or due to certain expectations. This is a situation many people have likely found themselves in and the filmmakers tackle this largely through the actors. Octavia Spencer does make Harriet Wilson into a three-dimensional figure, a teacher with an obvious love for her profession, but also going about certain ideals in the wrong way. However, Onah doesn’t let Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s Luce off the hook, either. While the film leaves a lot ambiguous about his true intentions, Harrison provides plenty of subtle cues in his performance.

The film also gives a lot of screentime to Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as Luce’s parents. We see their changing attitudes towards their adopted son and their shifting uncertainties over the course of the film’s events. The family dynamic is well portrayed and we are given enough information about their history together. Eventually, all of the subplots do pile up and it feels like the filmmaker’s ambitions are larger than the story they’re telling. On top of the teacher-student antagonism, the movie also wants to explore Harriet forcing her philosophies on the African-American students in her class. The racial commentary comes in a little late and isn’t explored as much as it probably should.

Through Harriet’s sister Rosemary, Luce also contains a somewhat misguided attempt at talking about mental health. This is done mostly to benefit the central characters, rather than to flesh out Rosemary. Then there are themes on the educational system and how some students benefit from it more than others. Again, this is a valid theme to explore, but would have been better served if given its own film to shine. On top of everything, Luce wants to touch on sexual assault and consent and the effect on high schoolers. Every subplot and idea in Luce deserved the time to be fully tackled and by grouping everything into an hour and forty-nine minutes, they’re fighting for screentime.

One has to admire Onah and Lee’s ambitions for Luce and all of the topics they want to focus on. These are valuable and needed, but they get in the way of the central plot. We’re given tiny morsels of everything and it’s a shame the final film ends up a tad underwhelming. The actors all deliver and Larkin Seiple’s photography also deserves mention. The conflicts between a single teacher and student is not one often explored in film, in favour of more inspirational stories, so it’s good to see it given attention in Luce. Thankfully, nobody is given a free pass in this film, either.

Stefan Ellison

Stefan Ellison