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'Luce': Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts Shine

A brilliant film about an adopted African child soldier who becomes an American saint (or sinner)

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 49 minutes

Stars: Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Director: Julius Onah


Luce asks difficult, probing questions about race in America and doesn't provide any simple answers. Naomi Watts, 50, and Tim Roth, 58, bring impressive nuance to the roles of Amy and Peter Edgar, white liberal professionals who adopted a former child soldier from Africa when he was 10 and renamed him Luce.

Kelvin Harrison Jr., who costarred in last year's provocative racial drama Monsters and Men, remarkably embodies the title character, who has transformed himself (with the help of his parents and years of therapy) into a model high-school senior, a gifted student athlete who's bound for college. His mannerisms are not coincidentally reminiscent of Barack Obama.

Enter Octavia Spencer, 47, who could earn her fourth Oscar nomination (she won for 2011's The Help) for her relentless turn as Harriet Wilson, a social studies teacher who becomes suspicious of Luce after he writes an essay for her class that leads her to believe he might be harboring dangerous political ideas, perhaps left over from his childhood as a combatant.

What ensues is a battle of wills between Luce and Ms. Wilson, who is dealing with her own struggles at home. Her mentally ill sister (the sublime Marsha Stephanie Blake, from Netflix's great Central Park Five miniseries When They See Us) is released from an in-patient treatment facility and becomes Harriet's unstable houseguest.

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Luce teeters on a knife's edge between manipulative psychological thriller and trenchant commentary on racial relations in contemporary society. You're never quite sure if Luce is a cunning sociopath, a radical ideologue, a misunderstood genius, a kindhearted kid or some combination of all four. You may also find yourself laughing uncomfortably during certain scenes to break the tension, then questioning whether it was OK to laugh.

Adapted by J.C. Lee (writer for TV's How to Get Away With Murder and Looking) from his own play, Luce poses the question: Is it possible for a young African American man in today's America to be perceived by mainstream society as anything other than a saint or a monster? While Spencer's character seems to represent the latter point of view, the former is given voice by Norbert Leo Butz, 52 (who played Paddy Chayefsky in FX's excellent Fosse/Verdon), as the well-meaning but deeply condescending high-school principal Dan Towson.

Caught in the crossfire are Watts’ and Roth's long-married wine-swilling couple who vacillate between vigorously defending their son as being falsely accused and openly questioning whether Luce may have been irredeemable all along. The conflict puts a strain on their already fraying marriage. Watts and Roth, who played another married couple under extreme pressure in the 2007 shocker Funny Games, exhibit a masterful interplay that keeps the audience off balance at all times.

Luce explains that his parents rechristened him because his mother couldn't pronounce his African name, so they chose “Luce,” meaning “light,” in hopes that he would be a beacon of hope. Luce, the movie, sheds light — and heat — on timely, thorny issues. It is, in a word, brilliant.

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