“Luce”

The film “Luce” highlights what a provocative tale and fine acting can do. Luce Edgars is the central mystery. He is a high school stand-out. The soon-to-be valedictorian is also cagey and at times too smart for his own good. Kelvin Harrison, Jr. is marvelous in this role. Both like Lucifer and a lucent angel.

His white , adoptive parents ( Naomi Watts and Tim Roth ) have nurtured the seven-year-old former Eritrean child soldier to succeed ~U.S. middle-class-style. He partakes in athletics, debate, and leadership positions. He is the principal’s “poster child”. When an intuitive and stern teacher, Mrs. Harriet Wilson, ( beautifully rendered by Octavia Spencer) sees an alarmingly violent tone in one of Luce’s assignments, she calls Luce’s parents, but not before she has checked his locker. Illegal fireworks are found, not an AK-47. Still the musical score heightens the tension. Mrs. Wilson has previously found weed in Luce’s friend DeShaun’s locker and he has lost his scholarship. Confrontations ensue that suck the air out of every room your mind may enter.

The history and government teacher is savvy to Luce’s mind games and subtle threats. Spencer does not over act here. She is a marvel of restraint even if her language slips in passionate caring. She tells his parents: “He can’t fuck this up. Talk to him.”

Watts and Roth are superb, too, in their back and forth dance with their son’s guilt. Did he orchestrate the vandalizing of his teacher’s home? We know he set-up his Asian girlfriend to retract her previous statements. There are numbing scenes of manipulation by Luce around shared lockers; Wilson’s mentally ill sister, Rosemary; and a bouquet of flowers. When Spencer’s Harriet poured a stiff drink, I wanted one, too. She is this film’s tragic figure~so like our times.

Naomi Watts’ Amy is perfect as the liberal parent, who wanted to use her infertility to do something praiseworthy. Tim Roth’s Peter delivers his “ missed babyhood and diapers” speech to deepen the psychological fray. Amy does all the wrong things out of fear: “ I won’t risk the trust we built”, she intones. One of the most chill-producing events was to hear how Amy could not forget the pet goldfish that Luce threw across the room like deli-meat. This mom will lie for her child, and ironically his knowing this may save him. The fireworks have been both symbolically and literally hidden!

Kelvin Harrison,Jr. is impressive as Luce. We want him to be perfect, but he isn’t. Has America put him in a box where he can’t breathe? When he says, “ I haven’t been my best self”, we cringe at his understatement. Questions like “ Do you hurt people to prove a point?” surface. In his valedictory speech, Luce tells us that he was renamed because his adoptive mother could not pronounce his African name. In America, resilience is a virtue, too. As a “ war zone pull-out”, is Luce allowed to define himself ? When Luce asks his teacher “ What if you are what I need protected from?, we understand. Is reading and championing Frantz Fanon’s violence scary from a revolutionary stand point?

When Luce tells Mrs. Wilson , “ I’m sorry if I scare you, I just hope you know me better than that”, is he taunting or conforming? Are both equally bad? It will depend on who you think Luce is. What is behind the smile? What is behind the tears? Viewers only know that Luce gets a second chance, and that Mrs. Wilson may not. A stunner of a film.

‘ 71

War through the eyes of a new British recruit has never looked more out of control. While in conventional war no matter how much one trains, one is never prepared for the happenstance of hellish circumstance. At least,  the enemy is known. Spies and counterspies  are not on the battlefield. In Northern Ireland in 1971 this is not the case. With the Irish “Troubles” as the backdrop,  loyalty and discipline contort and reassemble again and again. Stunned and fear-filled,the lost and left Gary Hooper (Jack O’Connell) shows us what we ask of our trained soldiers. This is a new recruit’s story. This time there is no survivor’s guilt. Conversely, children taking part and dying is  ’71 ‘s central motif.

The film begins in darkness. No images divert our attention from the sound of punches being thrown. Then the film explodes with UK lads boxing, and then running through a beautiful countryside,then crawling commando-style through rocky streams and glorious bubbling creek beds. There are culverts to be tunneled and constant teamwork. Platoon rifle practice,barrack and crested beret displays are all shown in silence. The entrance of dialogue comes in the emergency orders for in country deployment to Belfast, and Hooper consoling his pre-teen son with “I’ll be back soon”. War experience will deliver a changed father and a changed film-goer, I suspect.

Mothers lose control of their sons in this war. They collaborate,steal firearms, throw bricks  and are primed to kill. Like in the Middle East and in Africa, child soldiers burn our sensibilities. When a fourteen year old named Sean is coaxed with “Come on,Sean, don’t think about it. Pull the trigger. We are at war here. I know you can. Pull the trigger.”,we wince.

There are impossible sets of loyalties. There are opportunists,infiltrated police,and “wee man” children whom filmgoers will never forget. One ballsy-talking eight year old swallows beer when Hooper is too traumatized to do so. Resigned his high voice proclaims “the IRA bastards killed my Dad; they are going to kill us all.” War in this child’s eyes is a game of division,the good is divided from the bad.

The music of Darren Holmes is its own dialogue in a film that has little. His strumming beat of anticipation never leaves us. The tension and fury of The Flats, the IRA stronghold is head-splitting with protesters banging trash can lids. Music is in riot overload, and it pushes out of control. As one character calls it: “David Bowie is for girls.” Women often try to subdue the men’s warrior passions in this film. They seem to breathe grief.

What viewers get in this directorial debut of Yann De Mange are opportunities to live the war in Belfast,Ireland. I can’t remember a film where I felt so in the midst of pushing, spitting and brick throwing riots. The hand-held camera makes the jostling visceral. When gun shots, flames and bombs surround our protagonist, we have inhabited the scene. This is unlike the war films “Unbroken” and “American Sniper” where we are watchers. Here we are made to feel like we are limping through hazy alleyways searching for a safe place to catch our breath.

The sepia dream-like sequence is especially backlit beautifully. Accolades from film festivals in Berlin, Toronto, and New York attest to this immediacy of event. The Sundance Festival noted its pacifist promise. No matter where your allegiance, the fog of street war looks untenable, undisciplined and crazy. This film says no more than that, but it says it memorably.