Julius Onah’s Luce raises questions instead of giving the answers and that is refreshing. The film demands the viewer engage with the sparse narrative and weighty performances in order to understand what just happened and why.
Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts, Tim Roth) adopted Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) at age seven. He spent his early years as a child soldier in the east African nation, Eritrea. He had a lot of therapy after he was adopted. And his white mother, Amy, “couldn’t” bother to learn how to pronounce his name correctly. His white father, Peter, suggested that they simply rename him. Luce shows a rare vulnerability, perhaps the only glimpse of himself, as he rehearses this story for a speech. Harrison plays it with the familiar Luce smile and pleasant demeanor and tears slide down his cheeks. This critic’s heart broke for the child with adoptive parents who casually disregarded their adopted child’s birth name. I wondered how hard Amy tried to learn his name.
Conflict stems from Luce’s history and government teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, who also produced this film), becomes concerned about a paper Luce wrote for her class. The assignment? Choose a person from history and write a paper from their perspective. Luce chose Frantz Fanon, an African philosopher of the opinion that violence is necessary in the struggle against colonialism. Given his past as a child soldier in Africa, and his present as an immigrant in the United States, writing a paper from Fanon’s perspective felt like a genuine choice from Luce. But knowing his past as a child soldier, the teacher says she feared potential violence from him and searched his locker. She found fireworks, which are illegal in Arlington, Virginia. Her motivation for the locker search is flimsy to the point of frustration. There’s no evidence Luce has a tendency towards violence, he’s got an excellent academic performance record and he’s popular among students and staff. He wrote the paper so well that she got frightened? Does she search lockers of any student she doesn’t like? The history and government teacher has no understanding of the brutality of colonialism? One doesn’t have to agree with a perspective to acknowledge that it’s valid. Who did she expect Luce to write about? Barack Obama?
Each scene shines light and casts shadows. The meetings between Luce’s parents, teacher and principal, the discussions between Amy and Peter, scenes with Luce and his parents, reveal one thing and hide another. It’s masterful to watch and the questions are constant. How well do Amy and Peter know their son? It’s normal for a teen to start to separate from their parents and refine their own identity. But does Luce’s pleasant demeanor hide a violent person? His parents wonder if he has actually recovered from his violent childhood. Is he merely adapting to the assumptions that surround him or is he happy? When Luce writes a paper that doesn’t conform to Harriet’s expectations of him, does that justify her locker search and subsequent meddling? Did Amy and Peter do the right thing when they adopted Luce? Do they love their son or is Luce an accessory for their “woke whiteness”?
Some say that adoption is rooted in tragedy. Luce was born into a family and situation where he could not stay. His circumstances of origin, such as birth name and culture, were glossed over and his adoptive parents focused on the new, “better” circumstances. He’s had therapy, it’s all been “processed,” according to Amy. I was left with one question as I watched Luce go for a final run: Did he heal or did he adapt?