There’s an unsettling quality to people who insist on looking you directly in the eyes. Over time, we’ve collectively established a hard social limit on how long someone is allowed to hold your gaze before the interaction becomes awkward, uncomfortable, or even threatening. Luce, the new film from writer/director Julius Onah (based on the play by J.C. Lee) expertly mines this basic premise to build a story more sinister and menacing than it has any right to be, especially given the relative simplicity of its plot.
In Luce, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the shining star of his high school. Adopted as a child from war-torn Eritrea by his parents Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts), he has become an emblem of “the new American Dream” in his community. Polite, well-spoken and high achieving, his success is positioned as a testament to his parents’ love and dedication. But when he writes a concerning history paper in the voice of Frantz Fanon, arguing that “violence is a necessary cleansing force,” his teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) sets in motion a series of events that propel the tense psychological thriller through its 109 minute runtime.
After searching Luce’s locker and finding a stash of illegal fireworks, Harriet calls Amy to the school, relays her concerns, and asks her to speak to her son. After all, maintaining Luce’s reputation and preserving his college opportunities is of the utmost importance. How would it look for the young black boy who witnessed and committed unspeakable violence (it is briefly implied that Luce may have been a child soldier) to now argue for genocide as a force for social good? Harriet delivers both the fireworks and the offending paper to Amy, who stashes them in an old hiding spot at home.
From there, things go haywire. Amy and Peter quibble about their concerns in secret while Luce lurks on the periphery of their home. Harriet’s house is broken into while her mentally ill sister is visiting, leading to a fracture in their relationship. An old rumor about a sexual assault at a high school party is resuscitated. The circumstances of another student’s removal from the track team becomes a point of contention. Harriet’s sister has a manic episode at the school and strips naked in front of the students before the police arrive to cart her off. Harriet’s home is defaced in red paint with racial slurs. The desk in her classroom is blown up with fireworks. Amy discovers the ones she’s hidden are missing. Harriet’s tenure at the school comes into question.
The film establishes Luce’s resentment of Harriet early. He tells his parents that she is too focused on her idea of him to allow him to be who he actually is. He doesn’t want to be an exceptional token, and he finds her concern with his social image offensive. Harriet’s slant towards racial respectability is a recurring motif in the story, and it’s understandable why Luce finds her high expectations so stifling. Luce makes it clear that he dislikes Harriet’s tendency towards symbols over people and convincingly makes the case that her approach is to the detriment of her students. The other student-athletes are made to hold him up as an aspirational example. It gives him frighteningly little space to fail.
Spencer returns to form as the staid but clear-eyed Harriet. She is hard on some students and more lenient with others, including Luce, but makes those choices with full understanding that some of her students were always more likely to succeed than others. She is acutely aware of the racial realities of being black in the United States, but oversteps by attempting to orchestrate her own fiefdom through school politics. Harriet makes obvious and inappropriate mistakes, but she operates so clearly in good faith that it’s hard to fault her for her decisions. Spencer imbues the character with a resigned weariness that evolves into the keen foresight of a woman being denied her own perception of events. By her final scene, she is a woman on the edge, fed up that her best efforts were met with hostility and violence.
But the key difference is that Luce never actually pushes back on the position that has been thrust onto him, choosing instead to lash out at Harriet for creating the fiction he has chosen to maintain. Offered more opportunities to shine, he accepts them. Turning them down never meaningfully crosses his mind. Luce readily accepts the benefits that come with being the school’s shining hope, but bristles against the expectations that accompany them. Rather than lose his position as the golden boy, he releases his built up resentment by directing it at his teacher, only nominally acknowledging that his loving parents also prop up the exceptional narrative he feels forced to perpetuate.
Luce effortlessly manipulates the adults around him. They are so invested in the narrative of his success story that he continues to receive the benefit of the doubt, even as the circumstances around him get more and more suspicious. His words and accusations are given equal weight to Harriet’s, and his vague apologies are taken at face value. His veiled threats to her are treated as mere misunderstanding. Harrison Jr. gives a terrifying performance in the title role, and imbues Luce with a depth and inner life that might have been flattened into pure psychopathy in the hands of a lesser actor. His precise control of his face takes Luce from slimy brown-noser to menacing devil in mere seconds. He projects artifice so completely that it is always apparent, but to call it out would be to belie one’s own suppositions and fears. All the while, his eyes convey that Luce is always thinking, scheming and plotting; he is never without a plan to right the wavering perceptions of who he has become.
Luce is a compelling villain precisely because he spends so much time actively pretending not to be one. He bends, but never breaks social norms, using the space between them as a staging ground to unsettle and terrorize. This is never more apparent than it is with his interactions with his mother. Amy’s prime consideration is maintaining Luce’s trust. In her mind, all the work she and Peter did in therapy to socialize him after they brought him home will be undone if they violate his sense of privacy and safety.
This becomes one of the main arenas in which Amy’s whiteness and Luce’s blackness conflict. Amy is so desperate to believe in the “investment” she has made in Luce as a symbol of her own progressiveness that she is far more permissive than any black parent would ever be. As Luce senses her doubts growing, he taunts and punishes her, by addressing her by her first name, intentionally creating an emotional distance she becomes overeager to close. Notably, he doesn’t do this with Peter, who is much more forthcoming about his belief that Luce is involved in the tribulations that have suddenly befallen Harriet. When Harriet confronts Luce and his parents about her suspicions of Luce in a meeting with the principal, Amy lies through her teeth to protect her son. When they get home, Luce is back to calling her mom; her just reward for unfailing loyalty.
Luce plays on expectations of race, respectability, and white liberal guilt to weave a taut, terrifying tale that dares the audience to speak its suspicions aloud. Musical strains ramp up the tension, then disappear as quickly as Luce switches expressions. This isn’t a situation where the audience is waiting for the characters to catch up to what we already know. Here, instead, we’re at the edge of our seats, constantly switching allegiances between Harriet and Luce, trying to discern motives that remain opaque. There are no easy answers. In fact, there are no answers at all. The drama is intensely compelling, invoking trite assumptions about established racial hierarchies to trick the audience into acknowledging their own biases. Luce is a new kind of “race film” that complicates contemporary understandings of race to weave a story so tense you won’t realize you’re holding your breath.
Luce hits theaters today, August 2.