(2019) *** 1/2 R
109 min. NEON. Director: Julius Onah. Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz.

/content/films/5174/1.jpgAs XTC songwriter Andy Partridge wrote in the song “Playground,” “You may leave school, but it never leaves you.” So too does high school, a microcosmic society-within-a-society, lend itself to allegory. Julius Onah’s dramatic film Luce unfolds at Northern Virginia High School—a.k.a. Nova High School—but its ins and outs deal with more than just education and child-rearing. Adapted by Onah and J.C. Lee from the latter’s provocative play, Luce tackles race in America and its sociopolitical intersections.

In what should be a star-making performance, Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the titular African-American high-school student: an all-star in the classroom, at the debate podium, and on the track. A former child soldier adopted at the age of seven from war-torn Eritrea, Luce was raised by two attentive, caring, well-off white parents, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). We meet Luce as he addresses his entire school on “Generals Day.” With the smiley, smooth mien of an old-school politician, Luce gets compared to Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, forming the question at the heart of the film: does Luce live up to his reputation and, for that matter, could anyone?

Cracks in the façade begin to spread when Luce’s concerningly intense history and government teacher Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) red-flags an essay written by the boy in the voice of 20th-century activist Frantz Fanon, an advocate of righteous violence. Wilson takes it upon herself to search Luce’s locker and discovers another piece of ambiguous circumstantial evidence: a brown paper bag packed with enough fireworks to do some damage. Given that it’s a part of the student culture to expediently share locker space, Luce can credibly claim the fireworks aren’t his. But Wilson passes along her doubt to Amy, setting off domestic strife, a cold war between Luce and Ms. Wilson, and an existential threat to Luce’s presumptively bright future as an American success story.

What follows works on the level of a stalker-y “no one believes me” thriller (amplified by doubt over which one is the instigator and which the victim) and also a thematically rich drama about family life and America’s fraught institutions. Onah’s previous film, The Cloverfield Paradox, showed little sign of the sensitivity and skill the filmmaker applies to this story, which crackles with top-notch angsty performances from its central foursome (with a fine assist from Norbert Leo Butz as the school principal).

Luce primarily concerns itself with African-American identity, plagued by withering lowdown stereotypes and polar-opposite pressures, reflecting the notion that black children must not only be as capable as their white counterparts but harder, better, faster, stronger. Onah and Lee constantly presence the weight of expectation on Luce, especially from his mother, but also from his teacher and his peers (showing one skewed perception, a friend at one point tells Luce he’s not “black black”). The plot also provides an adult parallel dealing with African-American identity in the differences between Spencer’s fiercely image-conscious professional and her fragile sister, prone to mental-health issues and substance abuse.

In some ways, the film’s subtle political satire proves even more distressing. Beyond the film’s civil-rights minefield (Onah and Lee are savvy on the issues of active privacy violations as well as the unconscious, passive abdication of privacy on social media), Luce hammers away at our self-deluding myths about poster-child perfection: there is no “perfect” when it comes to parenting or personal character, and we must accept the nasty reality that reinvention and rehabilitation must be constants in our lives. Likewise, it’s a folly to put total trust in any authority figure or politician.

In its scariest moments, Luce reminds us that the people we trust to lead us are those best able to perform trustworthiness, to fake the right emotions, to manipulate others openly and behind the scenes. Unconsciously, maybe that’s what we want from our leaders, need from them. Luce says he loves the “freedom, strength, individuality” Independence Day the fireworks. Thematically and dramatically, Luce gives us all that…and a bag of fireworks.

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