Sep 2, 2019

A challenging and entertaining tour of cultural hotpoints.


Grade: A-

Director: Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox )

Screenplay: Onah, J.C. Lee, from Lee play

Cast: Naomi Watts (Birdman), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 49 min

By: John DeSando

“Luce” will not give as much light as the titular character’s name promises. What it does offer is a kaleidoscopic view of racism, sexism, and more than those, adult expectations for excellence in offspring that can’t be met in a real world.

The film is brimming with questions about the true character of adopted and gifted son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr), or is he just a meeting ground for the wishes of his adoptive parents (Amy—Naomi Watts, Peter—Tim Roth), his teacher/accuser Harriet (Octavia Spencer), and friends and others who expect him to be the perfection of their expectations for him as an achieving minority?

Director Julius Onah, together with original playwright J.C. Lee, guides the audience through a cultural maze out of which the film really doesn’t fully emerge. Besides trying to determine if this exemplary senior, Luce, is an early terrorist or the model of a student, did he do some serious stuff for which he has eluded punishment?

Harriet, however, is the avenging angel, ready to indict blacks and females in order, maybe, to toughen them up for the prejudice they will face after graduation. No answers to these vexing questions, just many possibilities and ambiguities as in life itself, especially involving those gifted enough to stand out and stand judged more harshly than those not as lucky.

This challenging film often seems like a play, as it should coming from one. The emphasis is on words trying to parse the meaning of so many conflicting cultural signals such as the place of minorities in white, not always liberal, enclaves. Additionally, is someone like Luce imprisoned by the dreams of his parents and teachers?

As for the thriller aspects of this drama, whether or not Luce is a good boy haunts the narrative in a most delightful, albeit subtle way. My kind of ambiguous film.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at