Directed by: Julius Onah
Written by: Julius Onah & JC Lee
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Ruiz
Pedestals create an unfair position for those placed upon them, as any wrong move could cause a cataclysmic fall from grace. Doing it to a student who holds a marginalized identity does them no favors, especially when comparing the treatment to others who hold the same features. It walks the line of leaning towards tokenism. Luce takes this idea and turns it into a twisted story that leaves everyone looking bad.
Starring as a popular and smart student-athlete, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) was adopted and brought to the United States from war-torn Eritrea by well-meaning parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tom Roth). Everyone adores Luce and he’s seen as a model student, but he’s developed some friction with his history teacher, Harriet (Octavia Spencer). When assigned a paper to speak from the perspective of a historical figure written by Luce alarms Harriet, she shows it to the young man’s parents. That even leads to a chain reaction of responses that get out of control.
2019 has served as a breakout year for Kelvin Harrison Jr. Not only does he give a brutal and visceral performance in Waves, but he provides a better and more nuanced one in this brilliant film. The character of Luce represents such a challenging person and one that continues to unravel as the story unfolds. He seems to do everything right and as a debater, he knows how to win an argument with others. Luce can tear people down and do it with a smile on his face. This occurs because he has been placed on this pedestal by his parents and by the rest of the adults in his life. He cannot afford to slip up because that would be catastrophic for what he has built from having nothing as a child-soldier. It leaves the audience in a place to sympathize with him, but some of the actions that take place throughout the narrative really complicate it.
Then there are the supporting characters in the film that represent the enablers and the challengers in the life of Luce. His parents, Amy and Peter, always support him and have given him the life he would have never had if he stayed in Eritrea. With that love comes the complications of their blind spots in regards to their adopted son. As white parents to a black son, they are extremely cognizant about the perceptions of their relationship looks like to anyone outside their family unit. They constantly worry about the things they say and do for Luce, which puts them in a strange position when the rest of the plot unfolds. Naomi Watts puts in good work in this film and deserves to be in more films that appreciate her incredible acting. She has been in too many clunkers this past decade for the amount of talent she brings.
Octavia Spencer has been nominated three times at the Academy Awards and has been victorious once for her role in The Help. She has built a strong career for herself but she has never been better than her performance in Luce. As the main person willing to challenge the persona Luce presents to the rest of the community, she received incredible material to work with and she makes every word count. Every conversation held between her and Luce features incredible dialogue and acting that made we want to rewind it just to watch it again. They play off each other so well and become worthy adversaries. Just like every other character in the film, the audience can sympathize with her actions but with complications.
If it hasn’t been made clear yet, this story has layers and has its nuances. It tackles different issues regarding the black experience in America including code-switching and what it means to be perceived as a role model by others. The narratively impeccably weaves through these issues seamlessly and must be commended by director/co-writer Julius Onah. It’s a tight line he walks in telling this story and how it works through the different experiences and decisions of the characters. There are times where the story gets incredibly dark and the deception gets to the point that will frustrate audience members. I certainly had those moments where I wanted to scream at the characters and if any film can do that in a positive way, it’s an incredible success.
So much can be discussed with what gets revealed in the film and the events that transpire, but anyone reading this review needs to watch the film to go through the experience. Every character decision has weight and has a major impact on the overall narrative. I was absolutely stunned by the brilliance of this story and how it unpacks white liberalism, black excellence, and tokenism. It’s a story that deserves to receive a spotlight and further analysis because Julius Onah creates a web that pulls everyone in, to the point where the characters just want to get out.