From left, Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Naomi Watts star in “Luce.” (Courtesy Neon)

‘Luce’ an elucidating story of race, class, identity

Kelvin Harrison Jr. excels as struggling, searching teen

Too much ambiguity weakens the narrative in “Luce,” a drama about the identity crisis of a model Virginia high-school student who was once a child soldier. But outstanding performances and observant considerations of race and privilege make the movie, opening Friday at the Embarcadero and Kabuki, stimulating.

Directed by Julius Onah (“The Cloverfield Paradox”) and based on the play by JC Lee, who wrote the screenplay with Onah, the film is a psycho-thriller and an examination of how race and class determine how individuals are granted or denied opportunities.

Seventeen-year-old Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) was a 7-year-old solider in Eritrea before a white, liberal, upper-middle-class Arlington couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), adopted him. With the help of therapists, Luce has matured into a popular honor student and star athlete at school.

At the same time, Luce feels like a symbol. His friend DeShaun (Astro) describes him as an Obama figure, representing African-American excellence and respectability. He’s tired of having to be perfect.

The drama heats up when Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), Luce’s history teacher, informs Amy that Luce chose to write his homework essay on Frantz Fanon, a revolutionary who advocated the use of violence to free oppressed colonized people. Concerned, Harriet has searched Luce’s locker, where she found illegal fireworks.

Amy and Peter initially trust their son. Students share lockers, Luce explains. The fireworks aren’t his.

Later, the couple worry. Luce has lots of secrets.

In a subtly threatening and sinister tone, Luce confronts Harriet about her characterization of him as a budding terrorist.

Is Harriet correct in that assumption? Or is she profiling Luce, based on personal biases?

Is Luce responsible for a string of disturbing acts that have transpired?

The filmmakers answer such questions ambiguously. This haziness can get frustrating.

Some incidents, like a case of sexual assault, demand more clarity.

But Onah wants audiences to focus on underlying social truths as he sharply illustrates how race, class and power substantially determine how people fare in life.

School authorities harshly punish DeShaun, a decent kid deemed a nowhere-bound stoner, after marijuana is found in his locker.

Harriet’s mentally ill sister is treated shamefully.

While his storytelling tends to have a connect-the-dots rather than an organic feel, Onah hasn’t turned Lee’s play into something stagy. Avoiding interruptive war-zone flashbacks, he makes Luce’s identity struggle constant and compelling.

He also generates Michael Haneke-style tension, showing childhood-rooted trauma and kids displaying menacing qualities. (Not to mention that costars Watts and Roth appeared in Haneke’s 2008 “Funny Games.”)

While Watts, Spencer and Roth are top-rate, and Watts’ and Spencer’s characters share a blistering confrontation or two, Harrison is the drama’s driving force. The young actor, whose credits include “It Comes at Night,” brings Luce to life charismatically, sympathetically and frighteningly. He’s one to watch for.

REVIEW

Luce

Three stars

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

Written by: JC Lee, Julius Onah

Directed by: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes

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