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Is This Star Student A Saint Or A Sociopath?: 'Luce'

Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., center) is an athletic and popular star student in director Julius Onah's film, based on J.C. Lee's play.
Jon Pack
Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., center) is an athletic and popular star student in director Julius Onah's film, based on J.C. Lee's play.

We meet soon-to-be-class-valedictorian Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as he's addressing a high school assembly in Northern Virginia, saying all the right things about a rosy future. He is clearly practiced and comfortable in the spotlight, popular with students and with teachers, despite a wrenching childhood in war-torn Eritrea before he was adopted and brought to the U.S. He's a success story, as the school principal never tires of saying.

So Luce's adoptive mom (Naomi Watts) is blind-sided when one of his teachers (Octavia Spencer) calls her in for a conference about a paper he's written. The assignment was to write in the voice of a historical figure — and Luce chose Frantz Fanon, a Pan-Africanist revolutionary who argued that violence is a necessary, cleansing force needed to free colonized people from their rulers.

Watt's character, knowing her son as a gentle soul, reads the paper and sees that he has followed the assignment. Spencer's character sees Luce through a different lens than his parents do, a teacher's lens ... affirmative, yes, but she's worried about that paper, and she's even more worried about something she finds in his locker — which I won't spoil here.

Director Julius Onah and screenwriter J.C. Lee, on whose play the film is based, are focused on big themes even as they deal with the specifics at hand — themes of racism, privilege, progressive ideals, the tendency to see what we want to see.

Harrison is fascinating as Luce, his eyes often registering very different emotions than his other features. And he's matched by Watts and Tim Roth as his differently supportive adoptive parents, and Spencer as the teacher consumed by doubt ... until she's not.

Luce's champions see a model student, a star athlete, a kid for whom stuff found in a locker should count as a minor infraction. But doesn't that make him as much a prisoner of their expectations as a classmate who's been labeled a loser and kicked out of school for having marijuana in his locker?

So much here is in the eye of the beholder. Depending on whom you listen to, whose judgment you decide to trust, Luce could be either a paragon of virtue, or a sociopath. For a lot longer than you might expect, Lucemanages to entertain both possibilities.

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.