Provocative indie filmmaking is a risky gambit, especially in the current box office marketplace. Even Laemmle Theaters, the most iconic independent chain, is rumored to be looking for a buyer thanks to an incredibly down yea. Indie cinema has grossed less than half the revenue from 2018 heading into the ninth month on the calendar and that’s including the two most successful films from earlier in the year (Booksmart, The Farewell). Luce is one of those films suffering as a result but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most thought-provoking films of 2019.
In order to bring Luce to the big screen, Writer/Director Julius Onah teamed with J.C. Lee to adapt Lee’s play of the same name. Onah had gained recognition from a résumé of short films, culminating with his first full-length feature in 2015 (The Girl Is in Trouble) and eventually The Cloverfield Paradox (2018), which had legs and reach as a Netflix movie. Meanwhile, Lee had worked as a writer and producer for television which gave the pair a natural working symbiosis. However, for a number of reasons, this wasn’t the easiest property to adapt.
As best an overview I can give, this is the story of a boy who was adopted from a war zone in the African country of Eritrea, by upper-middle-class white parents, and given a second chance at life in America. Now on the verge of graduating high school, his character is brought into question by one of his teachers and he’s faced with the mounting expectations of his parents and faculty while navigating a tremendous amount of internal turmoil. Effectively harnessing all those complicated narrative elements was challenging. Early on, the dialogue seemed too guided and unnatural for it to have maximum impact but it kept the wheels moving until the script picked up momentum. Once things open up and the characters are really engaging in some challenging intellectual dialogue, the strength of the cast and the story came to the forefront.
Thematically, there was a whole lot on the table. Most notably, the screenplay was a scathing criticism of racial perceptions in America. Luce is a black kid, raised by white parents to be the valedictorian superstar of his community with little emphasis placed on what he actually wants or needs. His parents were perfectly content to pat themselves on the backs until confronted with some unsettling information that inflated their self-doubt and brought their parenting skills into serious question. Thankfully, all of the primary characters had their perspectives thoroughly explored which gave the audience an opportunity to actually listen and untangle some of the complicated moral arguments for themselves. Beyond the primary catalyst, there was a specter of violence hanging over almost every scene while themes of privacy, perception, expectation, and the social responsibilities of both parents and teachers were fed into the main narrative. After a rocky start, this wound up being the most intellectually stimulating film I’ve seen this year.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. gave a powerful, eerie performance in the titular role but it’s fair to categorize this as an ensemble since the meat of the story is really about how all these characters interact. Based on a play that tackles some heavy subject matter, Jessica Kelly had to approach casting this film with reverence and The cumulative star power is really what landed this Dutch project on people’s radar. Oscar nominees Naomi Watts and Tim Roth stepped in as Luce’s parents, Amy and Peter, while Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer played his history teacher, Ms. Wilson. With a cast such as this, you’d sort of expect things to just fall into place but it wasn’t that easy. I struggled with the character design of the parents early on but things began to fall into place. Over time, it became clear that it wasn’t just the kid who was dealing with a great deal of internalized trauma. Ultimately, that’s the fabric that weaves the story together. All the characters are dealing with some kind of repressed emotional burden that impacts their behaviors and their decision making. While the focus may be on Luce, the subtext is certainly aware and inclusive of many different types of psychological battles.
It’s easy to see this movie was made on a small budget but sometimes less is more. Especially with the type of subject matter on display in this film, a stripped-down presentation was definitely the way to go. It maintained the bones of the source material while transitioning to a different medium and had the benefit of a strong original score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. The pair composed music for recent Science Fiction favorites (Ex Machina, Annihilation) and that same kind of penetrating, cerebral element is on display here as well.
The film’s release fell into a strange time of year where it had to compete against a large number of summer flicks. Combine that with an ad campaign of very limited scope and it’s a large part of the reason why Luce hasn’t even broken the $1-million barrier at this point. An indie film like this was never going to run wild at the box office but it is way under the radar…if not completely off it at this point. Given what’s been going on in the United States, this movie is far more poignant than everything else in theaters this year. However, it doesn’t offer any escapism and that demographic is what makes up the majority of moviegoers.
Recommendation: See it for the social relevance and for the stimulating questions it raises. It won’t be easy to find in theaters and may ultimately find its legs on streaming services. So, waiting until it comes to you isn’t a bad choice at this point.