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August 4, 2019

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Tense family drama packs a punch

BE yourself” is a loaded idea for any 17-year-old, but especially for Luce Edgar, the title character of director Julius Onah’s riveting adaptation of JC Lee’s play “Luce.”

In this simmering drama, complex themes of race, privilege, youth, family and parenting are poked at, deconstructed and left scattered all over the frame for the audience to piece back together. It’s a perfectly crafted cocktail of vision, talent and script that will leave your mind spinning for days.

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) is the adopted son of two white parents, Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts). He’s a model student, charming and polite to adults and peers, a talented athlete and has a bright future in front of him. Current accolades aside, his background makes him even more tantalizingly perfect as far as college admissions counselors are probably concerned. You soon find out that Peter and Amy plucked this former child soldier from his war-torn African home and plopped him in the suburbs of Arlington, Virginia, to raise him at 7 years old.

And everything seems to be going great. Everyone loves Luce, except for Harriet Wilson. Played by Octavia Spencer, Harriet is a no-nonsense history teacher who infuses her own worldview into lessons — especially those about race and justice — much to the annoyance of her students. And in a class assignment where her students assume the voice of a controversial world leader, she believes she sees something concerning about Luce. When she finds illegal fireworks in his locker, she becomes even more convinced that there might be a sociopath beneath the charm and decides to tell his parents about her suspicions.

What follows is an enthralling portrait of what happens when doubt begins to creep into relationships, heightened by the facts of Luce’s childhood and the high-pressure expectations of his current surroundings.

Everyone is trying to do what they think is best, which often backfires in unexpected ways, making the situation even more complex and dire. There are times when you think you’ve got a handle on things, characters will provide new information and you’re left piecing things together again.

The script and acting is top notch. Although it’s not that surprising Watts, Spencer and Roth deliver masterful performances, it’s possible that some audiences will just be meeting Harrison Jr, for the first time.

He’s got an impossible-to-resist charisma, and it’s easy to see why everyone falls for him. But, beneath the flirty smile and bewilderment, there’s also a provocative menace lurking.

Is it just the normal rebellion of a too-smart and too-controlled teenager pushing back against the expectation of perfection? Or is there something more sinister happening? I can’t even promise a tidy conclusion, but it’s a fascinating journey.

And Onah, who also directed the underwhelming “Cloverfield Paradox,” has come back to prove his merit and as a director to watch. In “Luce,” it’s clear he has style and vision, but he also knows enough to let the story be the centerpiece and not try to push against its theatrical origins. In other words, that it feels like a play is not necessarily a bad thing.


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