Julius Onah’s cinematic retelling of J.C. Lee’s play Luce is a stage-to-screen adaptation nearly on the level of Doubt and Rabbit Hole.
Comparably packed with thick tension and explosive confrontations brought to life by gifted performers, it’s also very much a film. Building on the technical prowess he showed in The Cloverfield Paradox, Onah takes advantage of the form, producing well-lit images and consistent centered framing of characters, tossing in the occasional bravura moment via thrilling uses of steadicam.
Co-written by Onah and Lee, the fertile foundation sprouts four big dramatic performances and cast-wise chemistry to spare. In a magnificent rebound after the embarrassing Ma, Octavia Spencer is superb as Harriet Wilson, a high school history teacher in Arlington, Virginia, who takes issue with what she views an intentionally provocative essay by the African-born, adopted titular teen (Kelvin Harrison Jr., It Comes at Night).
Once Ms. Wilson brings in Luce’s parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, in slightly better shape than when we left them in Funny Games) and suspicious items are found in his locker, the powder keg game of cat-and-mouse truly takes off with Harrison Jr. brilliantly playing all sides, including a handful of close friends. In these various scenes, the young actor matches talents with his far more experienced costars, frequently leaving viewers breathless as the tremendous pressure Luce is under to be a model student, pal, and son becomes increasingly clear — as well as his potential to explode.
Enhancing the film’s gripping nature is the insertion of unsettling, quasi hip-hop music, composed of a heavy urban beat and a percussive voice making aggressive sounds. Toss in the unpredictability of Ms. Wilson’s troubled sister Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake, When They See Us) and the desire for retribution from select students, and toting a tank of oxygen to the theater might not be a bad idea.
Good as Harrison Jr. is, however, there’s a sense he hasn’t quite figured out his character. Though intentionally difficult to read for the sake of the film’s suspense, his quick transitions from smiles to tears without a fully-developed backstory to ground these emotional swings (put-on or not) occasionally yields vapid results.
There’s also something a bit wonky about Luce’s principal (Norbert Leo Butz, Better Living Through Chemistry) recruiting his star pupil to speak to the student body on multiple occasions. But as one wonders if that component is part of the original play and how it might have been presented there, the numerous locations and complex character interactions likewise get the mind churning, imagining how a stage production of this material would look.
The interconnectivity between the source material’s original incarnation and its translation to the screen forms a fascinating link and solidifies Onah as a filmmaker to watch. After seeing Luce, maybe haters will give The Cloverfield Paradox another try — or not. Their loss.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Starts Sept. 6 at Grail Moviehouse