Is This Star Student A Saint Or A Sociopath?: 'Luce'

Aug 2, 2019
Originally published on August 3, 2019 1:51 am

We meet soon-to-be-class-valedictorian Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as he's addressing a high school assembly in Northern Virginia, saying all the right things about a rosy future. He is clearly practiced and comfortable in the spotlight, popular with students and with teachers, despite a wrenching childhood in war-torn Eritrea before he was adopted and brought to the U.S. He's a success story, as the school principal never tires of saying.

So Luce's adoptive mom (Naomi Watts) is blind-sided when one of his teachers (Octavia Spencer) calls her in for a conference about a paper he's written. The assignment was to write in the voice of a historical figure — and Luce chose Frantz Fanon, a Pan-Africanist revolutionary who argued that violence is a necessary, cleansing force needed to free colonized people from their rulers.

Watt's character, knowing her son as a gentle soul, reads the paper and sees that he has followed the assignment. Spencer's character sees Luce through a different lens than his parents do, a teacher's lens ... affirmative, yes, but she's worried about that paper, and she's even more worried about something she finds in his locker — which I won't spoil here.

Director Julius Onah and screenwriter J.C. Lee, on whose play the film is based, are focused on big themes even as they deal with the specifics at hand — themes of racism, privilege, progressive ideals, the tendency to see what we want to see.

Harrison is fascinating as Luce, his eyes often registering very different emotions than his other features. And he's matched by Watts and Tim Roth as his differently supportive adoptive parents, and Spencer as the teacher consumed by doubt ... until she's not.

Luce's champions see a model student, a star athlete, a kid for whom stuff found in a locker should count as a minor infraction. But doesn't that make him as much a prisoner of their expectations as a classmate who's been labeled a loser and kicked out of school for having marijuana in his locker?

So much here is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on whom you listen to, whose judgment you decide to trust, Luce could be either a paragon of virtue, or a sociopath. For a lot longer than you might expect, Luce manages to entertain both possibilities.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

How well do parents know their children or teachers their students? Critic Bob Mondello says the film "Luce" throws in some serious complications as it asked those questions about a class valedictorian.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We meet Luce as he's addressing a high school assembly in Northern Virginia, saying all the right things about a rosy future and then asking his classmates to rise.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

KELVIN HARRISON JR: (As Luce Edgar) And to take this opportunity to thank you, our teachers and our parents, for helping us become who we're meant to be.

MONDELLO: He is clearly practiced and comfortable in the spotlight, popular with students and with teachers, despite a wrenching childhood in war-torn Eritrea before he was adopted and brought to the U.S. He is a success story, as the school principal never tires of saying.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As principal) Here's my question. How do we clone this guy? How do we clone him? Great job.

HARRISON JR: (As Luce Edgar) Thank you.

MONDELLO: So Luce's adoptive mom is blindsided when one of his teachers calls her in for a conference about a paper he's written.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

OCTAVIA SPENCER: (As Harriet Wilson) The class was given an assignment to write in the voice of an historical figure. Some students picked FDR at the start of the Great Depression or even Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs. The goal was to get them to think outside of the box - just want to make sure you understand where I'm coming from.

MONDELLO: She hands Luce's paper to his mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

NAOMI WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) Who is this Frantz Fanon?

SPENCER: (As Harriet Wilson) He was a Pan-Africanist revolutionary. He argued that violence was a necessary cleansing force, that it was needed to free colonized people from their rulers.

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) You teach this.

SPENCER: (As Harriet Wilson) I don't. Look. I won't pretend to know what it's like for Luce to confront certain...

MONDELLO: Harriet Wilson sees Luce through a different lens than his parents do - a teacher's lens; affirmative, yes. But she was worried about this paper and even more worried about something else.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

SPENCER: (As Harriet Wilson) I found this in his locker.

MONDELLO: A paper bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) No.

SPENCER: (As Harriet Wilson) Amy.

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) No, I'm sorry. I respect my son's privacy.

MONDELLO: Respect or no, seeds of doubt are now planted. She and her husband confront Luce and things quickly get heated.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

HARRISON JR: (As Luce Edgar) We share lockers. The guys on the team share lockers. I don't know what 90% of the crap at the bottom is let alone who it belongs to.

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) So...

HARRISON JR: (As Luce Edgar) So not everything in my locker belongs to me.

WATTS: (As Amy Edgar) OK, good.

MONDELLO: Director Julius Onah and screenwriter J.C. Lee, on whose play the film is based, are focused on big themes, even as they deal with these specifics at hand - themes of racism, privilege, progressive ideals, the tendency to see what we want to see. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is fascinating as Luce, his eyes often registering very different emotions than his other features. And he's matched by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth as his adoptive parents, Octavia Spencer as the teacher consumed by doubt and then not.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LUCE")

SPENCER: (As Harriet Wilson) I know the difference between miscommunication and provocation. I can tell the difference between the two, Dan.

MONDELLO: Luce's champions see a model student, a star athlete, a kid for whom stuff found in a locker should count as a minor infraction. But doesn't that make him as much a prisoner of their expectations as a classmate who's been labeled a loser and kicked out of school for having marijuana in his locker? So much here is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on who you listen to, whose judgment you decide to trust, Luce could be either a paragon of virtue or a sociopath. And for a lot longer than you might expect, the film "Luce" manages to entertain both those possibilities.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECT SANDRO'S "BRAND NEW DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.