Luce (Onah, 2019)

Luce is a film that abounds in absences, the foremost being the absence of our certainties. There are moments where dread circulates simply because intentions cannot be read, thereby thwarting expectations from forming completely. Motivations are left blank slates; line readings are cryptic, suggesting nothing definitive. It really is a film that comes down to your own opinions, and what the film asks of us is to interrogate those opinions more closely. We must shake out the implicit biases that we have stored within us and question how influential they are in our reading of the film’s outcome. What do they tell us about ourselves if we side with Harriet Wilson, the stern history teacher whose initial concerns about star student Luce seem to spiral into paranoia? And what do they tell us if we’re always on Luce’s side: the side of the handsome and charming valedictorian whose everyday interactions are nevertheless clouded by a hint of insincerity and obfuscation? Is Luce, as Harriet fears, unraveling to the point of madness, or are Harriet’s worries regarding her mentally ill sister unduly straining her sense of judgment? Luce’s adopted parents stand as our semi-surrogates, caught between wanting to believe their son and finding credible reasons to doubt his side of the story. Much like us, they eventually choose a side, but not before searching high and low for simpler answers. Answers that don’t exist.

It’s a film that grapples smartly with heady racial ideas, from tokenism to burdensome expectations and how privilege can act as a soul-destroying force when sharply juxtaposed against the systemically disadvantaged. Neither Harriet nor Luce come out unscathed, as both make undeniable mistakes regarding their actions towards one another. And there is no doubt that Octavia Spencer and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are well-matched, the latter all but affirming that he is a rising talent worth following. Harrison makes Luce’s enigmatic edges seem effortless, teetering as he does between heightened expression and quiet insistence. Spencer, meanwhile, has never had a role as worthy of her talents as Harriet. Sandwiched as she’s been in comedic supporting turns, it’s refreshing to find her exploring new dimensions of her skills, employing a steeliness that is slowly undone by panic at the thought of being a possible sociopath’s teacher. It’s quite simple: the film couldn’t work without them.

Onah has more difficulty trying to hide the theatricality of the source (a play by J.C. Lee), and unfortunately, he can’t. The dialogue, though juicy as can be at times, is still too intensified to sound natural, while the action remains largely bound up in interiors: dining rooms, classrooms, auditoriums, offices. The three-act structure is also harder to cover up, no matter how many false starts or digressions try to stymie it. But I didn’t mind much. The source is an intelligent and probing work, and those qualities are translated here to the cinematic form without hindrance. It made me think and squirm and sweat in my seat, and I’d much rather do that than fall asleep, wouldn’t you?