Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julius Onah
Screenwriter: JC Lee, Julius Onah
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Norbert Leo Butz, Andrea Bang
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 7/29/19
Opens: August 2, 2019
Every time I think that the high schools in which I taught are pretty OK, not great but certainly not blackboard jungles, I get a wake-up call that says, “Your schools are OK: but compared to what?” Then I come across this high school in Arlington, Virginia which looks nice and clean with grounds to match and students that really pay attention in class and one teacher who has given the teens fifteen years of her life, sees parents after class, and discusses education with the principal. So I think, “I wish I could have been assigned to this Arlington city High School.” Then my envy of the place gives way when I find out that this school may be in prosperous Arlington but it could in no way deserve real estate in Shangri-La. Things are happening therein that would threaten a parent’s trust of her son, a teacher’s dedication to her students, and would start warfare enveloping teacher vs. principal, mother vs. father, student vs. teacher, and would involve questions of race and class. That Julius Onah, who adapted the movie from a play by JC Lee featured in New York’s Lincoln Center leaves ambiguity not only in the ending but throughout the proceedings is a good thing. In fact without the ambiguity’s causing us in the audience to pause and think deeply about the film, we would be shut off from any thought of discussion save for “Where should we go now for our frappuccino?”
“Luce,” which is the name of the principal character played by Kelvin Harrison Jr., means “light” and light indeed brightens the upper-middle-class home of Amy Edgar (Naomi Watts) and her husband Peter (Tim Roth). Unable to have children of their own, they seek out a potential adoptee from the most troubled place imaginable, a seven-year-old who has already been tormented more than almost any American adult by growing up in war-torn Eritrea. With a back-story that involves years of psychological help and any other form a rescue that his adoptive parents have tried, Luce attends a school that gives his room to develop and express his natural talents and is lucky—or maybe not–to have as his history and government teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who pushes those in her charge so strictly that she has been called a bitch. For reasons that a movie audience will find ambiguous, she snoops into Luce’s locker, finding illegal fireworks among the notebooks, confiscates them, and, instead of telling Prinicpal Towson (Norbert Leo Butz) calls in Luce’s parents. To add to her suspicions, Harriet has graded the student’s essay on the subject, name a historical figure and write a paper on how you would act in his place. Luce uses the example of Frantz Fanon, whose “Wretched of the Earth” advises violence to get overthrow colonialists. Luce is virtually labeled a terrorist, and when in addition, Harriet hears a rumor that Luce is involved in the rape of Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang), the stage is set for verbal, and later physical warfare, involving students, teacher, principal and parents.
What motivates Harriet to go after this one student, a young fellow who excels in debate, track, and can hold an audience of parents in thrall when addressing them in the auditorium? We in the audience are left with an unspoken motif that Harriet, who is on the one hand demanding outstanding work especially for marginalized teenagers, is envious of Luce’s parents, who appear to be upper middle class, who presumably did not have the stresses affecting Harriet, who has lived with her emotionally disturbed sister Rosemarie (Marsha Stephanie Blake). In fact in the film’s most energetic scene the entire school must cope with Rosemarie’s psychotic break as she goes ballistic, removes all of her clothes, and is carted away by the police.
Tim Roth and Naomi Watts play parents who must have had to cope with the frustrations and joys of bringing up a child with a damaged psyche, their most compelling scene involving an argument about how to deal with accusations that their young man has committed an act of minor terrorism. Should he be exposed for what he may be—the emphasis on may be—or should they lie and give him an alibi that would counter charges against him? Still, the film belongs to Harrison, who has appeared in films and TV since his minor role in 2013 in “12 Years a Slave,” but who, at the actual age of twenty-five is too old to convince us that he is a student in high school rather than going for a graduate degree.
Nigerian-born director Jonah Onah, whose “The Cloverfield Paradox” finds scientists testing a device to solve the energy crisis, moves ahead with this intellectually challenging and emotionally gripping tale with metaphoric possibilities that feed into the current sophomoric racism of our president, who does not have a racist bone in his body.
This is an emotionally gripping and intellectually satisfying meditation on racism, parental pressures, and teachers’ expectations.
109 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B
Overall – B+