Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/12/19 06:18:36

"Wins the debate but may not be convincing."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: "Luce" is a clever film that often leans a bit too hard on its cleverness, especially in the first half. The filmmakers seemingly love to show a small facet of something and make it very clear that there's more to be seen and maybe they'll get to it later, or to lay out facts and perspectives in debate-team style, pointing out that it's working with semantics rather than being straightforward or even playing at being straightforward.

The comparison is natural because title character Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is the star of his school's debate team and a generally impressive speaker all-around; his accomplishments make the whole community and especially the parents who adopted him as a refugee from Eritrea proud. But as he gives his latest speech, his History of Government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) looks suspicious, and she's soon calling Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts & Tim Roth) in for a conference. Luce, it seems, recently wrote a paper in the voice of revolutionary Franco Fannon when most of the other students chose someone less incendiary, and when Harriet searched his locker, she found something which suggests he might not just be interested in that as rhetoric. Luce has an explanation, but once the idea is in a person's head, it can be hard to get it out.

The trouble is getting more than just an idea out of it, and filmmaker Julius Onah and co-writer J.C. Lee (who also wrote the original play) don't have as much in the way of story as the movie really needs. Especially early on, they will tend to tease that Luce or Harriet has something to say or show to people, but then not actually do so for flimsy reasons, and that's a tactic that needs to be executed with care - even on the first try, it will often make the audience feel like the filmmakers are just screwing with them, and even when that's fun, repeating it tends to make a viewer more resentful each time. Once that happens, the payoff at the other end has got to be a nearly-perfect case of something one doesn't see coming despite it making perfect sense in retrospect, although ultimately being kind of loopy the way this movie does is not necessarily a terrible alternative - it's at least not underwhelming.

It does run a bit counter to the film's pointed high-mindedness. This is the sort of story where the characters are constantly making arguments, not necessarily trying to convince, but using the sort of formal "if A and B, then C, but can we necessarily take B for granted?" structure that can feel artificial coming out of people's mouths when it sounds like it belongs in an academic paper. There's some purpose to this - Onah knows that this sort of rhetoric often has less effect on people than a visceral emotional appeal and that the detachment necessary for debate-as-sport is relatively rare in the real world- but even as the film is acknowledging these messy facts, he's still building intricate structures. The focus of the action is creating situations that prove a point well after the audience is no longer interested in point-proving for its own sake.

Fortunately, there are plenty of fine performances in the film that breathe a fair amount of life into the charters themselves. Kelvin Harrison Jr. certainly knows what he's doing, making Luce a little too smooth from his first frame and often hinting that Luce's teenage impetuousness is as constructed as his mature intellectualism - no matter what the situation, he's trying to figure out how to react, and his instincts are just a bit off, even if his emotions are as strong as those of anybody else. Octavia Spencer plays a sharper variation of her no-nonsense persona - as with Luce, everything Harriet does is considered and deliberate, and it works the best when she shows that the dispensing of what sounds like common sense is designed to sting. The characters meant to be pushed rather than push someone else feel wobblier that perhaps they should as a result - Naomi Watts's Amy often seems to be entirely built from liberal tropes rather than the experience of raising a kid like Luce, to the point where Tim Roth's Peter being blunt is not just a contrast but a relief. They exist as occasionally-entertaining stand-ins, not parents with a stake in their son's well-being.

Despite the very visible way Onah and Lee manipulate their characters to try and prove their points intellectually, they still often manage to connect in a more direct manner on a regular basis. It's likely that the mannered, argumentative structure worked better on stage, and that does let it pack in a fair amount of interesting ideas, even if the way they're communicated can seem a bit more elaborate than is actually useful.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.