Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) is a model student, a leader on his high school’s debate and track teams, and a persuasive mediator in conflicts between friends. You would never know that he’d spent his first seven years growing up in war-torn Eritrea, that, as he says, he learned how to use a gun before he could walk, and that the terror of that experience drove him to sleep under his bed, even after he’d been adopted by an affluent, white couple, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), and moved to a comfortable American suburb.

Now he seems like a perfectly well-adjusted high achiever. Except, maybe for his senior history paper on the uses of political violence. That “maybe” is the crux of Julius Onah’s Luce, a powerfully acted and thoughtful drama about race, expectation, and stereotype.

In the process of complaining about his history teacher, Luce tells his parents that he doesn’t like what he perceives as her “tokenism.” Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is also black. And Luce is not the only black kid in the class. But his former teammate Deshaun’s mannerisms and language suggest a very different upbringing than Luce’s, one with fewer advantages, and, in the eyes of some, including Ms. Wilson, more to gain and more to lose than Luce, further to climb to reach Luce’s level of success—even despite where Luce started. Deshaun, in this view, is probably not expected ever to reach Luce’s domain in terms of personal or professional success. The most he can hope for is the aspiration such a model might inspire, and perhaps to be led by someone with Luce’s level of intellect and charisma.

To his credit, Luce rejects this kind of thinking, particularly as it’s embodied in what he perceives as Ms. Wilson’s targeting of Deshaun and other non-white kids (even Luce himself), forcing, in Luce’s mind, her expectations of their character on them, based mainly on their appearance, perhaps their academic performance, and her own experience. But how much can Ms. Wilson really know about what Deshaun, Luce, or any of their classmates are capable of, good or bad? This is the issue around which Ms. Wilson’s reception of and speculations about Luce’s paper on political violence hinges.

On the other hand, what Luce, with his egalitarian ideals, doesn’t seem to understand, is that, despite having started life in a worse social position than Deshaun, he may have both natural and now cultural advantages over his classmate that have consequently amplified the expectations (his as well as others) of his success. In a sense, this isn’t a matter of performance or merit, it’s about America. Others may frame their faith in Luce as the fruit of his excellence as a student, an athlete, or a son. But what almost no one wants to say is that their sense of Luce’s potential, of his being bound for great things, is based on his performance as an African refugee, as a young, black man. They can’t see the advantages of the whiteness of his American home because, in this world, this neighborhood, those advantages are virtually transparent. Except to Deshaun. And Ms. Wilson.

Even the viewer wouldn’t dispute that Luce is all he seems to be. There’s just something about him: a manner, a polish, a look that evokes confidence—that’s also, perhaps, dangerously irresistible. How much of his performance is just that? What might he really be capable of when his sense of justice and self—values shaped by his particular American upbringing—are challenged?

Onah creates a wonderfully Hitchcockian atmosphere around these questions, hinting at answers we want to believe and not believe at once. The truth is, we probably want Luce to succeed too, to confirm something for us about what America makes possible. But we’re here in this theater knowing that’s not the whole story. That’s why we came. We want something to bump, jolt, shock us out of the easy embrace of phony truisms about opportunity and bootstraps. Luce, the film, like the character, may not be perfect, but it does fine work with a dense and thorny script and particularly strong performances from Harrison, Jr., Spencer, and Watts.

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