Sundance 2019: Julius Onah's Provocative High School Drama 'Luce'
by Alex Billington
January 30, 2019
There's nothing like a great film that challenges your own prejudices and feelings, in an engaging and mind-blowing way. Luce, the third feature directed by Julius Onah (after The Girl Is in Trouble and The Cloverfield Paradox), is hands down the most provocative film of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It's an intelligent, clever, compelling drama that challenges us to rethink what we think we know - and does so with phenomenal performances and one hell of a smart script. The pitch for this film doesn't sound that enticing when you first hear it, but it's an experience that you won't soon forget, proving that cinema still has the ability to provoke and shake up even the most jaded viewers. One of the best films of the festival, a must see for anyone who appreciates challenging, bleeding-edge cinema. And a defining film for Kelvin Harrison Jr.
Luce, with a screenplay co-written by J.C. Lee and Julius Onah, is a high school drama about a teen from a war-torn African country. His parents adopted him when he was a young kid, after being indoctrinated as a child fighter, and have raised him successfully in America to be an intelligent, caring, top-of-the-class model student. Luce is loved by nearly everyone in his school, except for one particular teacher. This is where the story begins, and there's no flashbacks or anything like that, because this taut script is all about letting us in on things as the story plays out. And with each new scene we think we know more, but we really don't know anything, and we're always on edge and unsure of what's going to happen next. The tension builds when the teacher finds things in his locker after he writes a paper about a violent political radical. What is he hiding?
This propellant, energetic film pulls you right in and keeps everyone shockingly aware that they don't know everything. They don't always know the truth. And that includes us, as the audience. There's so many crazy, frustrating, annoying things going on with the characters in this film but as I'm watching it I'm realizing - holy shit that's what makes this so good. You bring your own feelings and interpretations and prejudice into the film, making judgements as your watching it. He's manipulative! They're protecting him! Come on! But then you start to understand that's what is so brilliant about it, the way it is provocative in a sense that it forces viewers to confront these conundrums within themselves while they characters in the film are also dealing with their own dilemmas. It's remarkable how subtly it achieves this while messing with your mind.
Making this script work so well on the screen is the lead performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Luce, a career-defining moment for him. His delivery and tone is so frustrating to watch because you can tell he's being passive aggressive and tricky, yet then you start to wonder if that's really him or not? Maybe he is just a nice guy? And he pulls this off perfectly. He's matched by Octavia Spencer, who gives one of her best performances ever as the teacher who feels like there's something wrong, it's not right. The two battle each other in shocking ways, but they're utterly thrilling to watch. Luce reminds me of First Reformed in many ways, and will shake you up much in the same way that film does. A brilliant, challenging film that provokes the audience as much as it provokes the characters, and represents our troubled times in an ingenious way.
Alex's Sundance 2019 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
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