“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.

“The Judge”

I wish the State of Indiana would give financial incentives to movie-makers to film in Indiana. One of the winners of last year’s Heartland Film Festival was supposedly set in a small Indiana town, but was actually filmed in Shelburne, Massachusetts. True,the backdrop of director David Dobkin’s “The Judge” makes use of the proverbial diner,bar,tire shop,fishing cabin and front porch;yet,the town square and church architecture and countryside were nothing like Indiana. I could not keep from imagining Crawfordsville and Shades being a much better setting. The Berkshires are lovely,but don’t try to pass them off as Indiana’s environs by throwing in a tornado.

The cast of “The Judge” is what you go to see. Robert Downey, Jr. is superb in his impatience and candor. Vincent D’Onofrio is encyclical-like in his resignation and matter-of-fact suffering. Billy Bob Thornton could not be slicker or more savvy as prosecutor. Vera Farmiga is protective and accepting,yet bedeviled by her past choices.Ken Howard is masterful and ready for any conundrum posed. And finally, Robert Duvall scores an Oscar win as the once renowned judge, turned law-breaker. Duvall is perfection as a cantankerous and failing father awash in alcoholism and dementia.

Big ideas like justice,reconciliation and forgiveness mesh with the passing of time and chronicles of life’s pain in divorce,estrangement, parent death,unwed motherhood and lost promise. Throw in a hit and run fatality with courtroom scenes of bluster,and we almost have too much. I liked the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s mix of broad and close frames and the beautiful sound track.

The scenes of showering off bowel discharges and selecting a jury by bumper stickers are
tender,fresh and memorable. A crowd pleaser of a movie if it were only filmed in the heartland.