Playing in the U.S. Dramatic competition of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Running time: 109 minutes. Next screenings: Thursday, Jan. 31, 6:30 p.m., Rose Wagner Center, Salt Lake City; Friday, Feb. 1, noon, Temple Theatre, Park City; Saturday, Feb. 2, 3 p.m., Redstone Cinema 7, Park City.
If digging through ambiguity over hot-button issues — racism, the pressure put on role models, sexual assault and white liberal guilt — is your jam, the provocative and frustrating drama “Luce” is for you.
The star student at Nova High School in northern Virginia is Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a standout track athlete and talented debater. His backstory is the stuff of horror stories: Born in Eritrea and trained as a child soldier, Luce was adopted at age 7 by a prosperous white couple, Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth).
Luce is a model student, beloved by all of his teachers except one: Miss Wilson (Octavia Spencer), his history teacher. Luce complains that Miss Wilson is too demanding of the students, not in their class work but in expectations that they be role models.
One day, Miss Wilson calls Amy in for a chat. Writing for a class assignment, she says, Luce wrote a disturbing political screed demanding violent revolution. What’s more, when Miss Wilson searched Luce’s locker, he found a bag of illegal fireworks. Miss Wilson doesn’t report Luce to the principal, Dan (Norbert Leo Butz), but lets Amy handle things, mother to son.
This revelation sets off a string of incidents, as Amy and Peter wrestle with being protective of Luce and fearful of him. Other incidents, like the suspension of another student (Astro) and a party where something happened to classmate Stephanie (Andrea Bang), complicate the image of Luke as a perfect son and student.
Meanwhile, Miss Wilson is dealing with issues at home. Her sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake), is living with her after having been released from a mental facility. When the sisters are shopping one day, and Rosemary encounters Luce, Miss Wilson starts to suspect her student is stalking her.
Director Julius Onah, co-writing with J.C. Lee (on whose play the script is based), throws a lot up on the screen, and gives enough information so that every character can be seen as the hero or the villain, depending on one’s point of view. At the same time, Onah and Lee withhold certain key details, which makes it a little maddening for a viewer to sort out right from wrong.
The performances are solid, with Harrison particularly striking as the model student able to alter his personality to fit what those around him — teachers, classmates, parents — need him to be.
“Luce” is the sort of movie you should watch at the beginning of a film festival, so by the end of the festival enough people will have seen it so you can all talk about it and figure out what the hell happened. If Onah and Lee meant to make a conversation starter, they succeeded.