Julius Onah's dramatic film "Luce" unfolds at Northern Virginia High School — a.k.a. Nova High School — but it's ins and outs deal with more than just education and child-rearing. Adapted by Onah and J.C. Lee from the latter's provocative play, "Luce" tackles race in America and its sociopolitical intersections.
In what should be a star-making performance, Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays the titular African American high school student: an all-star in the classroom, at the debate podium and on the track. A former child soldier adopted at the age of 7 from war-torn Eritrea, Luce was raised by two attentive, caring, well-off white parents, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth). We meet Luce as he addresses his entire school on "Generals Day." With the smiley, smooth mien of an old-school politician, Luce gets compared to Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, forming the question at the heart of the film: Does Luce live up to his reputation and, for that matter, could anyone?
Cracks in the facade begin to spread when Luce's history and government teacher, Ms. Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), red flags an essay written by the boy in the voice of 20th-century activist Frantz Fanon, an advocate of righteous violence. Wilson takes it upon herself to search Luce's locker and discovers another piece of ambiguous circumstantial evidence: a brown paper bag packed with enough fireworks to do some damage. Given that it's a part of the student culture to expediently share locker space, Luce can credibly claim the fireworks aren't his. But Wilson passes along her doubt to Amy, setting off domestic strife, a cold war between Luce and Ms. Wilson, and an existential threat to Luce's presumptively bright future as an American success story.
What follows works on the level of a stalker-y "no one believes me" thriller (amplified by doubt over which one is the instigator and which the victim). Onah's previous film, "The Cloverfield Paradox," showed little sign of the sensitivity and skill the filmmaker applies to this story, which crackles with top-notch performances from its central foursome (with a fine assist from Norbert Leo Butz as the school principal).
"Luce" primarily concerns itself with African American identity, plagued by withering low-down stereotypes and polar-opposite pressures, reflecting the notion that black children must not only be as capable as their white counterparts but harder, better, faster, stronger. Onah and Lee constantly present the weight of expectation on Luce, especially from his mother, but also from his teacher and his peers (showing one skewed perception, a friend at one point tells Luce he's not "black black").
In some ways, the film's subtle political satire proves even more distressing. Beyond the film's civil rights minefield (Onah and Lee are savvy on the issues of active privacy violations as well as the unconscious, passive abdication of privacy on social media), "Luce" hammers away at our self-deluding myths about poster child perfection: There is no "perfect" when it comes to parenting or personal character, and we must accept the nasty reality that reinvention and rehabilitation must be constants in our lives. Likewise, it's a folly to put total trust in any authority figure or politician.
In its scariest moments, "Luce" reminds us that the people we trust to lead us are those best able to perform trustworthiness, to fake the right emotions, to manipulate others openly and behind the scenes. Luce says he loves the "freedom, strength, individuality" Independence Day represents ... plus the fireworks. Unconsciously, maybe that's what we want, and need, from our leaders. Thematically and dramatically, "Luce" gives us all that ... and a bag of fireworks.
Rated R for language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use. One hour, 49 minutes.