A funny thing happened while watching “Luce.” With only a half-hour or so of the movie left to go, it suddenly occurred to me: I wasn’t sure what the movie was actually about. Or, more accurately, it was about so much that, at the point where most films are starting to wrap things up, this one felt like it was still just setting the stage.
The theatrical metaphor is apt. Based on a play by J.C. Lee — who adapted his own script here with director Julius Onah (“The Cloverfield Paradox”) — “Luce” has a staginess that feels like it might have worked better in the artificial confines of live theater, where audiences are sometimes readier to accept characters who feel like hothouse constructs and stories that make no effort to hide their schematics.
The title character, a 17-year-old played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who just turned 25 and looks it), is an Eritrean former child soldier, adopted by white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and raised in Arlington, Virginia. In the 10 years since Luce left Africa, he has lost all trace of an accent and thrived to an almost astonishing degree: He’s captain of the high school track team, a brilliant student, class valedictorian, perfect boyfriend and so poised and polite around grown-ups that he hardly seems real. There’s nary a hint of insecurity or momentary sullenness. (To be fair, all this seems to perplex his mom and dad a little, too.)
Conflict is introduced when Luce’s history teacher, Harriet Wilson, receives an assignment back from Luce that troubles her. Students have been asked to write essays in the voice of a historical figure of their choosing, and Luce picks Frantz Fanon, a French West Indian political philosopher who advocated that violent insurrection is sometimes justified. Potentially disturbing, maybe, but it also seems to meet the assignment’s requirements, if also containing a bit more devil’s advocacy than many teachers might be comfortable with.
As a result of Luce’s paper, Harriet (played by Octavia Spencer with the same quality of hidden darkness she manifested in “Ma”) decides to inspect Luce’s locker, where she finds illegal fireworks — arguably placed there by someone other than Luce, who shares his locker combination with teammates.
All of this sets up a series of clashes between Harriet, Luce, Luce’s parents and the principal (Norbert Leo Butz), each of whom approaches the problem with a different degree of suspicion, rationalization and/or thinly veiled hostility. Additional fissures are opened up by the wedge of race; another black student (played by the rapper/actor Astro) is not given the same benefit of the doubt as Luce when pot is found in his locker. And Luce’s Asian American girlfriend (Andrea Bang) is involved in a sexual assault in which it’s unclear whether Luce is complicit or chivalrous.
Did I mention that Harriet has a mentally ill sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake), who has a histrionic breakdown on school property? And that the sister’s presence is meant to — well, I’m not sure exactly what it’s meant to do, other than muddy thematic waters that are already so murky as to be almost opaque. Tensions flare between Luce’s parents, each of whom who seems to harbor lingering resentments around the fact that Luce is not their biological child. When racist, vulgar graffiti appears on Harriet’s house, there are so many potential suspects, it’s hard to know what to think, let alone whom to blame.
Presumably, that’s the intent of the filmmakers, who seem more interested in asking questions — about privilege, prejudice and more — than providing answers. Normally, that’s a good thing. And the irony of Luce’s name — which means “light” — is surely deliberate, in a film that is shrouded in moral gray areas. In this case, however, the one question that’s the hardest to tackle is this: Which one should I not answer first?