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maryann johanson, ruining movies since 1997

Luce movie review: whom to believe, and what that says about us

Luce green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Intense, uncomfortable family drama morphs into psychological suspense in a challenging tale of racial and cultural identity eliding the biases and delusions of its characters with the viewer’s own.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Ten years ago, a liberal, wealthy white American couple (Naomi Watts [Allegiant] and Tim Roth [The Hateful Eight]) adopted a former child soldier from a war zone in Africa. Today, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.: It Comes at Night) is an all-American-er-than-thou high-school golden boy, a star athlete and soon-to-be valedictorian. But is a teacher (Octavia Spencer: Ma) trying to scupper the life of promise and opportunity he and his adoptive parents have worked so hard to build… and if so, why?

The fine line that black boys must walk in America has never felt so narrow…

Before you realize what has happened, family drama — intense and uncomfortable, not least because it rings with familial domestic and parental truths — has morphed into psychological suspense as we struggle to determine where the actual facts of the matter in contention lie. Secondhand accounts of disturbing adolescent wrongdoing war with conflicting notions of racial and cultural identity, and of acceptance and assimilation, among Luce and his friends as well as the adults around them. The fine line that black boys and men must walk in American culture has never felt so narrow, so delicate, so easily breached…

Director Julius Onah, working from the stage play by J.C. Lee, announces himself as a major new talent with this, his third feature, as he surreptitiously elides the biases, preconceptions, and delusions of his characters with our own; this challenging film is as much about us as we digest it as it is about where the story goes. It ends up amounting to a provocative litmus test of the viewer’s own perspective — no matter where on the political spectrum you are. And it lets no one off the hook.


Luce screens in the Debate strand at the 2019 BFI London Film Festival, with screenings on October 6th and 7th.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2019’s other releases.



green light 5 stars

Luce (2019) | directed by Julius Onah
US/Can release: Aug 02 2019
UK/Ire release: Nov 08 2019

MPAA: rated R for language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex, references to sexual assault)

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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