Julius Onah has a lot to say. He stepped onstage just before Luce, his third feature as director, screened as the Opening Night film at this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston. Typically a pre-movie appearance from an auteur amounts to a wave, a bow, a “thanks for coming out!” or, at worst, a visible hostage situation at the hands of a ruthless moderator. Onah, in the span of what seemed like less than a minute, reflected on Luce‘s premiere at Sundance and his hopes for the conversations the film will continue to spur; he referred to the movie theater as “his church”; he drew parallels from the film to his own life experience, having emigrated to the U.S. from Nigeria when he was ten; and he even snuck in a playful dig at IFFBoston, noting that he’d submitted several short films for consideration years ago, all of which were rejected.
His film is similarly assertive of numerous ideas without ever being overly verbose. Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a star high school student in Arlington, Virginia who spent the first seven years of his life surrounded by the violence of war-torn Eritrea. His adoption by a white upper-class American couple (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) meant a new start, though it also meant a long period of adjustment and self-reconciliation. When his stern (some would say “bitchy”) teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) reads an unsettling essay by Luce and finds illegal fireworks in his locker, the question arises as to whether that period of self-reconciliation is actually still underway. Is Luce the model young American everyone makes him out to be? Or is there a darker side within him, manifesting itself as a sociopathic danger to others?
Luce doesn’t completely refuse to answer that question, but it does decline to provide any of the easy moral leanings that one might expect from such a setup. This is intentionally a film with more inquiry than explanation, what Onah calls “a conversation starter, not a conversation finisher”, an intense interrogation that never ultimately corners a solution. That purposeful ambiguity would make Luce anticlimactic only if you didn’t recognize yourself somewhere in the story, or if you simply weren’t paying attention. The overarching absence in Luce — the things we’re not privy to, or the things that are actively obscured from our view — forces us to participate in the narrative after the credits roll.
The intrigue of Luce sticks in the mind partly because the film doesn’t stop at asking if Luce did horrible things. It asks why, presenting several possibilities in line with a literal fight for independence and individuality. Another possibility, of course, is that there’s no such noble cause to which we might assign these actions, turning Luce into an Iago-like manipulator who enacts controlled chaos simply because he can. Even beyond those questions, the fact of even asking means Luce becomes more a symbol than an actual person, either a hero or a monster but never just a high school kid.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. has a lot to do with that, too. His performance is pitch-perfect in a film that depends entirely on a tightrope act in the main character. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with Watts and Roth (now a recurring onscreen couple after their turn in Funny Games) utterly convincing as parents who simultaneously despise the politicization of their family and sort of thrive in it. In an interview with the LA Times, Roth noted that their characters “felt like we were on top of our racism…we found out we weren’t. It still lurked within us. That perception of our perfection was stripped away.” As a white viewer (even one without kids), it’s powerful to see that onscreen. But Harrison’s Luce rightfully steals the show. When he asks you whether you believe him, the gleaming smile from ear to ear, there’s no way you’ll be confident in your own answer.
After the film, Onah returned to the stage and spoke at length about the power of that ambiguity. Being “told how to feel” was not the goal, the director said. The film, written by Onah and JC Lee from the latter’s stage play, is not technically based on a true story, but in a way it’s inescapably a true story about tokenism, systematic racism, and American identity. Onah’s own experience as an African who grew up and attended a private high school near Arlington prompted yet more questions about this character’s nature and careful depiction. Does Luce represent all black youth? Or just himself? Does he even represent himself, or is he representing a symbol that’s not really aligned with his individuality at all? Would it be fair for someone to expect that of him? Would it be fair for him to ignore it?
After his last film The Cloverfield Paradox, it’s a wondrous surprise to find such a strong voice in Onah. Paradox, having been essentially co-opted by the Cloverfield franchise, never quite conformed to the director’s vision. But it’s possible that some of the “mystery box” mentality of J.J. Abrams (who produced Paradox and was instrumental in bringing an indie director to that big-budget table) did affect Onah, given the “architecture of mystery” characteristic of his new film. Crucially, though, Luce leaves that mystery box shut, and by doing so it strands us in the aftermath, trying to pry it open. Julius Onah has a lot to say. But the things he chooses to not say are far more interesting, and far more important.