Starring Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts, Luce is a psychological thriller that will make moviegoers question their own perceptions: of the film’s namesake protagonist, of the events in question, of their own understanding of race relations in the United States. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a senior with an intimidating resume of extracurricular activities, awards and speaking opportunities, which is quite a feat as he grew up in a war zone until age 7, when he was adopted by a white couple (Watts and Tim Roth). His history teacher (Spencer) asks the class to write a paper in the voice of a political figure; however, when Luce writes his essay in the voice of Frantz Fanon, who believed that the use of violence was not only justified but necessary, his teacher becomes suspicious enough to search his locker. It’s not just the paper but also what she finds there that launches the viewer into a series of questions:
Has Luce inherited the violent views of his upbringing before being adopted?
With so many well-to-do characters in this story, who is trustworthy and who is not?
When presented with true cause for concern, should parents still stand by their children and support them?
Although the film is nearly two hours long, its sharp editing and realistic dialogue rush the story along at a sprinter’s pace. Rather than being confined by the adage, “Show, don’t tell,” to present Luce’s complicated, violent backstory, screenwriters Julias Onuh and JC Lee allow the viewer to infer past events from short, vague conversations between characters. Not only does this propel the central conflict, but it also builds suspense and adds to the mystery. Tonal pulses reminiscent of Inception reverberate sparingly after tense scenes, but besides these three or four instances, Luce allows the natural sounds of a setting — the frantic rustling of items on a shelf, the slap of pages against each other as someone flips through a document — to rest heavily upon the viewer. The rich characterization, well-written dialogue and delicate delivery of new information make Luce a riveting ride of second-guesses and sinister assumptions.