Julius Onah’s Drama Works the Gray Areas
I’m sure some will say that Luce, a film by Julius Onah, cannot decide what sort of story it is. It starts out in family-drama land, then veers into sports team scandal, spins off into a whodunnit, and lands in a gray and existential place. I found the genre shapeshifting profound; not at all an inconsistency, but an intentional play on audience expectations.
LUCE ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Julius Onah
Written by: J.C. Lee, Julius Onah
Starring: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
Running time: 109 min
The opening image is a blue school locker. The door swings open and the water bottle inside says Track & Field. There are books and notebooks. It’s organized. A hand we cannot see places a ratty-looking paper bag on the top shelf. It doesn’t look like it should be in this locker, and that’s the point.
The locker belongs to Luce Edgar, deftly played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. He was a child soldier from Eritrea, adopted at age seven by a couple of upper-middle-class white saviors who worked hard to get him the counseling and support he needed to recover from his trauma and subsequently succeed. He’s track team captain, debate team expert, popular, and certain to be valedictorian, the image of black excellence in a diverse school with what appears to be a broad socio-economic spectrum. Luce doesn’t just win trophies for his school, Luce IS a trophy for his school.
All signs point to Luce’s friend and teammate DeShaun being from the other end of the soco-economic spectrum. A star athlete, the school has kicked him off the track team because Ms. Wilson (played by the excellent Octavia Spencer) has found pot in his locker. Not only has he lost his spot on the team, he’s lost his scholarship. Drugs that the whole team, including Luce, used, have altered the entire trajectory of DeShaun’s life. But as far as the kids are concerned, it’s a harsh teacher’s fault.
Now, it seems, Ms. Wilson has set her sights on Luce. He’s written a disturbing paper, which has given her cause to search his locker where she finds the ratty paper bag, full of illegal fireworks. Instead of reporting it to the principal, she calls in his mother, gives her the worrisome essay and the fireworks, and leaves the consequences to her. DeShaun is the kind of kid on whom Ms. Wilson comes down hard. Luce is the kid she tries to save from himself.
This brown paper bag brings instant discord to Luce’s parents, played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. It’s unclear as to whether this incident has caused an existing vulnerability to crack open, or if Ms. Wilson is somehow pitting the parents against each other. The father is quick to judge, the mother refuses to entertain the notion of her son doing something so stupid, and the kid seems awfully sincere. But is he? At this point, the film feels firmly in family-drama land, and the filmmakers shift the audience’s alliance with almost every frame.
Then the story reveals an alleged team sexual assault, and the facts become blurrier. Luce’s mother begins to doubt her son, and so do we. Plus we get a whole lot of insight into Mrs. Wilson’s personal life, as we watch her bring her mentally-ill addict sister home from rehab. Unlike most high school teacher roles, (and, let’s face it, most black roles) Onah draws Mrs. Wilson as a three-dimensional character with quirks and flaws and baggage.
As Luce tries to convince his parents that Ms. Wilson is out to get him, one begins to wonder if he’s actually out to get Ms. Wilson. Things don’t add up. Oblique texts are sent. The parents outwardly lie to protect their son and suddenly everyone feels like the bad guy. When the filmmakers put us on such uneven footing, some deeper questions bubble up to the surface. ”She’s trying to protect her idea of me,” Luce says of his mother. “What if you’re part of what I need protection from?” he says to his mother.
The Edgars have “saved” their son from a life of war and tragedy, but what have they done to him? When we learn that his mother was never able to pronounce his Eritrean name correctly, and so they changed it to Luce, we understand how thoroughly these well-meaning white people altered and shaped this boy into what worked for them.
Luce says he feels like he’s only allowed to be a saint or a monster, even in the eyes of the black teacher, which forces the audience to ask themselves, can we only see him as a saint or a monster? Historically, films give us only those two options. But of course people are complicated. We get to see Ms. Wilson’s choices and motives, and we get to see this with the parents as well, but we never completely see Luce’s motives. Like so many real-life teenagers, we’re never certain if he’s lying or why he’s saying what he’s saying, and this mystery makes the film quite suspenseful.
While Onah crafts this story expertly, the dialogue is somewhat inconsistent. I found early scenes with Mrs. Edgar full of clichés, but the conversations among the track team members were so authentic and sharp that I realized I was watching the work of authors more comfortable writing men.
The acting in this film is superb all around, with a special shout out to Marsha Stephanie Blake who does a spectacular turn as Ms. Wilson’s sick sister. And I don’t mean it in the “she’s so good at playing a crazy addict” way. Even in her most sober and sane moments, I found her riveting. Please Mr. Lee and Mr Onah, make a film about her character next.
The sound editing was especially on-point, though the cinematography was often blurry to the point of distraction. If this was an artistic choice, it’s one I didn’t enjoy.
These are minor flaws in a gripping, compelling film. About two-thirds of the way through the journey, it occurred to me that these storytellers had no intention of revealing whodunnit. I suspect that, with a second viewing, I could find all the clues necessary to put together together. Each of these characters made questionable choices and manipulated others into doing what they needed. The point of the story isn’t who did it or who’s right and who is wrong. The point of the story is about who we, the audience, are conditioned to believe.