In the eyes of a parent, a child can do no real wrong. Even the most vile of children might be seen as angels through the eyes of a loving parent, especially during their tumultuous teenage years. Our parents are supposed to be our biggest cheerleaders and our greatest protectors, but the reality is that they often see us as they want to see us, not as we actually are. In a sense, as a part of growing up, we all develop two separate identities — the people that our parents know us to be and the people who we are. In “Luce,” director Julius Onah expertly explores the inevitable gap that develops between children and parents as adulthood looms, crafting a riveting, wickedly suspenseful film that left me unexpectedly shaken.
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr. “Monsters and Men”), a high school senior, has a relationship with his parents that seems quite healthy, filled with family dinners and car-ride banter. Practically a beacon of light to everyone around him, Luce lives up to his name. Envied by his peers, placed on a pedestal by his teachers, and adored by his parents, Luce is the paradigm model student. Or so it seems. To an outsider looking in, every piece of Luce’s life appears to fit perfectly. However, after his stern history teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer “Hidden Figures”) finds a mysterious bag filled with incriminating contents, the virtuosity of Luce’s character steadily becomes less and less clear.
What really makes this film work is that every single actor brings their A-game. Props especially must be given to Spencer and Harrison, who truly carry the entirety of the film and keep audiences glued to the screen. Spencer and Edgar both play characters with questionable integrity. Throughout the film, we find ourselves going back in forth, struggling to determine who actually has the moral high ground or if both are in the wrong. A testament to their stunning embodiment of Ms. Wilson and Luce, Spencer and Edgar have us desperately picking up breadcrumbs leading to the truth from the opening scene until the screen goes black.
Along with its solid characters, the film score and expert pacing add to the overall enchanting air of mystery. The film is accompanied by a melodic but unnerving sprinkling of musical accompaniments. The score manages effortlessly to enhance the film as a whole, without distracting from what is happening on screen. Perhaps what makes the incorporation of music in the film so fitting is the perfectly-timed flow of events. Though not riddled with fast-moving, intense action sequences, “Luce” does not lose our attention for a second. The tension in the film lies in the clashing between the internal complexes of the characters and the external interactions among them. Seething with passive aggression and fakeness, the relationship between Ms. Wilson and Luce is a ticking time bomb just begging to be set off. We can’t help but sit at the edge of our seats, wide-eyed and eagerly waiting for the inescapable explosion.
As we are teased along for nearly two hours, there is an anticipated promise of resolution, but when the lights come back on we hold nothing but a few loose ends. Though initially disappointed, once we’ve tossed our popcorn, exited the theater and started to untangle the knot of emotions that “Luce” left us with, we start to see the film’s non-ending as a testament to its quality and as much more of a blessing than a curse.