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Sundance: Choose Your Own Interpretation of "Luce"

Abe Fried Tanzer reporting from Sundance

People walk through this world with different levels of privilege. It’s a concept that’s become more widely understood of late, and certainly featured prominently in numerous films in recent years. In fact, 24 year-old actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. has starred in a handful that have played at Sundance, including both Monster and Monsters and Men just last year. This year, he stars opposite Naomi Watts in two films. One is The Wolf Hour, a dreary tale of agoraphobia in 1970s New York City that mildly touches on race and class. The other, which tackles the notion of privilege and prejudice, is Luce.

Harrison Jr. stars as the title character, who was adopted from Eritrea at age 7 by Amy (Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), and, with the help of considerable therapy to overcome his violent childhood, has excelled incredibly and become the class valedictorian...

He dislikes one teacher, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who frequently cites him as a token success story. When Luce submits a paper channeling notions of acceptable violence championed by an African leader, Ms. Wilson is concerned and searches his locker, where she finds a bag of illegal fireworks. When she calls Amy to share this discovery, a game of cat-and-mouse begins where it’s difficult to read the model student and determine whether he’s actually guilty of anything.

Luce boldly attempts to break down perception and expectations, but casts far too wide a net to accomplish that. Director and co-writer Julius Onah shared that he was born in Nigeria and grew up in Virginia, where the film is set. Asked if this film was made for a black audience or a white audience, Onah replied that it’s written for the multicultural world in which he lives. He rejected the notion of clear-cut good and bad, and said that the messiness is what he wanted to explore.

Naomi Watts and director Julius Onah, shopping the film around last yearUnfortunately, that makes for a messy film, one with conflicting ideas bumping up against each other, designed for audiences to form their own viewpoints on what the characters’ true intentions are. By having Luce play into the biases he sees from those around him, the character is often unsympathetic and at times outright unlikeable, almost negating the aggressiveness of assumptions - both aspirational and diminutive - made about him. It’s as if Onah is trying to teach the audience a lesson, one that’s impossible to make out with the muddied and frustrating plot. After the screening, the director made multiple references to seeing past people’s blind spots, reminiscent of a far better film that proved extremely adept on this topic, Blindspotting.

This film has a great cast going for it and a theoretically intriguing premise. Worse than not knowing where it wants to go or failing to get there, however, is that it purposely has no direction. Choosing your own interpretation doesn’t feel nearly as enlightening as seeing a coherent and charged narrative explored might have been.

previously in Sundance coverage

Luce has been acquired by NEON for distribution for their upcoming slate which now includes documentaries Apollo 11 and  The Biggest Little Farm plus the thriller Monos, the horror film The Lodge (from the directors of Goodnight, Mommy), Little Monsters, Wild Rose starring Jessie Buckley, and Bong Joon-Ho’s next drama Parasite.

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Reader Comments (6)

I feel like this material has been done before on sitcoms to illustrate our hysterical post-9/11 paranoia against Muslims. And since the filmmaker makes no final choice this is a provocation for the sake of implicating everyone as 2005's Crash.

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Happy to see Octavia in a different role. I'll make sure I check it out.

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMya

Naomi Watts cannot catch a break.

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJB

I saw this as a play and it was great. I will definitely give this film a chance before writing it off.

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

@JB. So true!

January 31, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

I liked this and think Octavia is absolutely fabulous in it.

January 31, 2019 | Registered CommenterMurtada Elfadl

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