You could dub this high-school chamber piece ‘We Need to Talk About Luce’. Superficially, it’s about a black high-school protégé, Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr), who we meet delivering the kind of awesomely assured speech that starts whispers of a Potus in the making. But there’s a slightly scary sheen to his charm that hints at less palatable depths. Then comes a pungent essay justifying political violence and a lockerful of illegal fireworks and the lustre starts to fade.
There are shades of ‘Get Out’ and ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ as the fallout touches on racial stereotyping and bias, although both films offer more elegant skewerings of liberal cant. Here, it’s the Eritrean-born Luce’s affluent adopted parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) who are not nearly as woke as they’d like to think. In a grim irony, they’ve renamed him Luce – ‘light’ – because they can’t pronounce his birth name.
There are a lot of fractious domestic scenes but the trio of performances never quite gels. Roth furrows his brow a lot and pours glasses of wine, an overplayed motif for middle-class smugness, while Watts frets one minute and schemes ruthlessly the next. More interesting are the tense exchanges between Luce and his history teacher (Octavia Spencer), an Alabamian hellbent on educating this outsider in the real realities of life as a black person in America. The upshot is an earnest race drama that occasionally flirts with turning into a sociopath thriller. You’ll kind of wish it did.