Each year, there are movies that I feel were overlooked by major awards bodies. In this 5-part Oscars column called “The Case For…” I will discuss and make a case for a few of the movies released in 2019 that I think deserve attention as Oscar voting is just getting under way. In conclusion to the series where I have made a case for The Lighthouse, Knives Out, The Farewell and Hustlers, the fifth and last piece is…
THE CASE FOR… LUCE
“Who put the weight of the world on my shoulders?”
Do you remember your childhood? Your teenage years? According to most everyone, they’re supposed to be the years when someone starts to evolve into the person they will eventually be. They shape the character, the interests, the virtues and flaws of a person. Not secondarily, they are also supposed to be the years of the purest enjoyment of life: the sense of discovery, the fun adventures, the madness of discovering your sex hormones. And yet, this doesn’t apply to everyone’s experience. There are young men and women who feel crushed by society’s or families’ expectations. There are also those who are chosen to represent a radical challenge to the status quo, like Greta Thunberg.
Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is one of those young men. He’s 17, he’s black, he’s the probable valedictorian for his final graduation. He has been adopted by a white family, Peter Edgar (Tim Roth) and Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts), that has brought him to the United States from war-torn Eritrea when he was 10. His process of adaptation to his new country hasn’t been easy: he didn’t speak English, but more importantly, he was so traumatized by his childhood that he couldn’t sleep alone. The brilliant, intelligent, well-spoken all-star student of Northern Virginia School is the result of years of therapy and pure love and affection by family and friends. So why does her history teacher, Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), not trust him fully? And why did Luce hide compromising explosive material in his locker, while at the same time choosing a political radical like Frantz Fanon for an assignment in which he was asked to write from the perspective of a historical figure?
Luce is a screen adaptation of a theater play, but it doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s not verbose, it’s not stagey, it’s tense and eerily sinister. Unlike most films adapted from theater, it places a lot of importance on facial expressions, on the characters’ eyes, on their gestures. The superb ensemble that drives the film has to handle a script that requires them to speak words as if they’re swords and use their eyes as if they’re open windows. Luce is a director’s movie, a screenwriter’s movie and an actors’ movie, and these three components conjure up a film experience that is up there with the best of 2019.
Luce is, in very plain terms, a film on the American Dream. Not a groundbreaking discovery, as most American films are. However, Luce stands out because it destructures it by subverting its common tropes. Luce, played with unsettling energy by the wonderful Kelvin Harrison Jr., is the ideal poster boy for the American Dream: a handsome, intelligent, hard-working soon-to-be valedictorian who has overcome a troubled past from his native country of Eritrea, with the help of two loving adoptive parents who gave up the opportunity to have their own biological son choosing instead to save a child from a country in disarray. Happy about it? Well, Julius Onah is clearly not. The American Dream is a lie, it’s a sham, it’s a rigged game, at least for people like Luce and his black friends. They are not allowed to make a single mistake, they are not allowed to form themselves through a trial of errors, like it happens for most people. They are either “saints or monsters”. They have only one chance at it: you blow it, you’re finished. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer at her near best) knows it, she has been through it, and she knows the iniquities of the whole Dream lottery. Having to care for a mentally ill sister neglected by the system, Ms. Wilson is a tough teacher, and she’s even tougher towards female and minority students. She thinks that her teaching attitude will prepare those students for the hostile world out there. But she has never had a student like Luce, and their cold war will lead to frightening discoveries and unimaginable consequences.
Intricate, sinister, thought-provoking, distressing, and quietly incendiary, Luce is a rich portrait of modern America, an all-encompassing look at the state of affairs in the United States: race, blackness, tokenism, the condition of women and minorities, mental illness, white guilt, the school system, marriage. It’s a deep examination on a country full of contradictions, like all great countries are.
LUCE SHOULD BE NOMINATED FOR:
Best Actor – Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Best Supporting Actress – Octavia Spencer
Best Adapted Screenplay – Julius Onah