Context is key in understanding both Luce the protagonist (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and the film he’s in. He’s a star track athlete and is most likely the valedictorian in his school in suburban Virginia. But he, a black student, might have put a wrench in his future by writing an essay. In that essay, he embodies Frantz Fanon’s violent philosophy, which is a cause of concern for his History and Government teacher. That teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) has a hunch and acts on it. She searches his locker and finds Fourth of July fireworks in October.
Harriet connects what she thinks is his radical ideas with those fireworks and thinks he’ll use them as explosives. What ensues in Luce seems like a subtle game of smarts between the student and his teacher. The enthusiasm or lack thereof of both characters to play tricks on each other depends on interpretation. Either’s enthusiasm levels to play tricks on each other is likely intrinsic to their characters as the script wrote them. Any other actor would have to give, for example Luce’s million dollar smile and Harriet’s suspicious glances. And the audience can interpret these words as Fanonian strategy to decolonize one character from the other.
That depends, of course, on which one of them is the real oppressor. The idea of this head to head combat between these two characters has potential on film. I might eventually give director Julius Onah’s previous film The Cloverfield Project a chance if I had the time. But it’s nice to see him tackle J.C. Lee’s intellectually ambitious 2013 play with the same name. And the intellectual sphere is now just the only sphere where it strives to show its ambition. It also tries to do it with its scope, showing characters within Luce and Harriet’s social circles.
However, the film does get out of hand because of its large set of characters and ideas. Luce and Harriet represent versions of enigmatic blackness and the film benefits as it focuses on them. The fact that Luce has white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) also seems important in here. But then it introduces other subplots involving drugs and sexual assault, only one of which is necessary. It’s as if Luce is playing bingo with every major issue that other teen films and shows tackle.
And I get it, children like Luce are the future of America and thus, the world. Which is why it’s important for children like Luce not to misinterpret college level writers like Frantz Fanon. But his access to the writer still feels as suspect as Harriet ringing alarm bells about him. The fact that a child is as smart as an Octavia Spencer characters also feels equally suspect. I don’t want to live in a fictional world where a child is smarter than Octavia Spencer.
For Toronto audiences, the Varsity Theatre will be showing Luce starting on the night of August 8th.