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A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star athlete and top student, putting a strain on family bonds while igniting intense debates on race and identity.

"There are many, many shattering moments in writer-director Julius Onah’s troubling, gripping drama Luce, which premiered at this year’s Sundance and is now showing as part of the Tribeca film festival, but one scene cuts deepest. The titular character, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr, is a black high schooler adopted aged seven from war-torn Eritrea, where he’d been raised as a child soldier. Years of therapy and rehabilitation have turned him into an all-star triumph, heralded by his predominantly white Virginia high school as a model of black excellence.

But his many achievements have also come at a great price. Luce finds himself existing in an increasingly claustrophobic box, one created for him by the country he now lives in. And while it might seem freer than the one forced on to a black schoolmate who’s been labelled a weed-smoking delinquent, it remains a box nonetheless. Luce has to work twice as hard to impress while being given half of the leeway his white friends are allowed. While preparing to give yet another speech to the school, Luce practises in front of an empty auditorium. He talks about his harrowing, violent childhood and how lucky he now is to be living in America, where he can be whoever he wants to be, as tears stream down his face. It’s a gut-punch of a scene, arriving with an almost overwhelming intensity and, importantly, is one of the only moments we get to spend alone with Luce.

What follows is a tense, knotty puzzle I won’t describe in much detail: one of the film’s great pleasures is awkwardly trying to piece it all together. It’s a drama that moves like a thriller with a stark, uncomfortable score and a series of seat-edge confrontations heating up a difficult debate over trust, expectation and racial stereotypes. The script, from Onah and JC Lee, whose play the film is based on, teeters on a razor’s edge throughout, forcing us to question our own preconceptions and to look past characters who, for some, could be easily defined by their race, gender or class. One of the film’s main arguments is that people exist on a spectrum – one as varied and complicated for us all, a blindingly obvious truism that many still seem to ignore. No one person fits into a box or lives up to a stereotype. For Luce, that crushing weight of becoming what a friend refers to as the new Obama, is stifling.

Luce is a difficult film to unwrap arriving at a suitably difficult time and Onah, whose crisp, uncluttered direction entirely makes up for his Cloverfield misfire, doesn’t want us to leave feeling like the puzzle has been solved. He wants us angry, confused, heartbroken and uneasy, walking out of the cinema in a state that many of us will be horribly familiar with living in America at the moment. Luce doesn’t have the answers but it’ll force many of us to be asking more of the right questions." - Guardian


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Directed by: 
Julius Onah
Running Time: 
Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth
14A - Disturbing Content
Coarse Language

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