Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"There's a rare intelligence to this film, which explores issues around race, wealth, class, gender and what it means to be a real American in a nuanced, multifaceted way." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) wasn't always known by that name. When his white American parents Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts) adopted him, they decided to change it. They wanted him to have a clean break from his past as a child soldier in Eritrea. As this film opens, they feel that they've succeeded. The once guarded, fractious child has grown into a calm, well groomed, sophisticated young man, a star student who seems to have the world at his feet - their young man.

When two of Luce's white schoolfriends make a derogatory reference to another boy's race, Luce points out that he's black, too. Yes, say his friends, but not that sort of black.

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'Luce' means 'bringer of light', a theme that is reflected in different ways throughout Julius Onah's scintillating film. Though treated with suspicion as an immigrant, Luce is a product of America, troubling the adults around him by illuminating what they have created. He's a youth whose intellect, when he brings it to bear, intimidates those around him, as does his polite but clear refusal to subject himself to any authority. Yet for all his brilliance, his bold individuality, he is only a teenager who hasn't had time to understand as much as he thinks he does. He can't escape the shadows that surround him. The weight of racial politics in his adoptive home will follow him no matter how high he climbs, no matter how fast he runs.

Amy's world begins to unravel when he's contacted by Ms Wilson (Octavia Spencer), a teacher who is worried about an essay Luce has written from the point of view of the anti-colonialist icon Frantz Fanon. Was Luce, as he claims, simply adopting Fanon's pro-violence position as an intellectual exercise in accordance with the theme of the assignment, or does the fluidity with which he espoused it suggest that he has terrorist sympathies? Ms Wilson's concerns are more potent because of a discovery she has made in his locker after searching it without permission. Soon Peter knows about it as well, and Luce finds his every action under renewed scrutiny.

The tension between Luce and Ms Wilson is palpable. She's perceived by her students as someone who come down harder on black transgressors; she's concerned about how their actions affect white people's perceptions of the wider black community, a species of politics which Luce has no time for, though in his way he too is concerned about prejudice beyond its impact on him personally. He also has his own ways of taking advantage of the country's complex racial hierarchy, effortlessly manipulating besotted Korean American girlfriend Stephanie (Andrea Bang), whom Ms Wilson comes to suspect he has abused. The balance of power shifts back and forth throughout, but as Ms Wilson becomes aware of just how much she personally has to lose, Luce's sense of control only seems to make him more lonely.

There's a rare intelligence to this film, which explores issues around race, wealth, class, gender and what it means to be a real American in a nuanced, multifaceted way. Watts has made something of a speciality out of playing conventional middle class women whose respectability hides a vicious self-centred streak, and she doesn't disappoint as the conflict between the two black leads spills over and layers of pretence are gradually peeled away from the white characters. There's an element of tragedy in the way the Amy is forced to engage with the reality of her feelings about Luce, but this is not a film to casually expend sympathy. It invites viewers - at least those who are paying attention - to share Luce's anger, whether or not they like him.

The performances here are uniformly strong, though Onah keeps a tight rein on proceedings throughout. The film is overlong and there are a few repetitive scenes which could usefully be excised, but it manages multiple plot strands successfully and nothing among them is extraneous. Appropriately provocative, this is a brave and ambitious piece of work.

Reviewed on: 04 Jan 2020
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A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealised image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.
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