“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 Glass Castle”

Loved the book, “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls. Did not care for the screenplay, which focused mostly on the alcoholism of the father and left a much more angry Jeanette Walls than the book left us. Trying to make complicated family dynamics simpler may have been the reason for cutting key elements of the Walls’ family story and adding others. Why leave the hidden candy bar episode of the mother out? Why have Jeanette leave her husband as she moves on to freelance writing? Why exclude a siblings loss? Why not show the children foraging for food as they spent so much of the book doing?

The film’s tone is much more judgmental than the book’s breezy spirit. Counter culture beliefs are made to look like they stem from mental illness or from “losers” who can’t hold a job. The acting is top knotch: it is screenplay that misses the mark. The back and forth flashbacks are ill-timed. Writer/Director Daniel Cretton also must deal with some poor sound quality. Cretton’s artful repetition of the water boiling scene was a symbolic plus.

The non-conformity of Jeanette Wall’s parents is played beautifully by Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson. “Turbulence and disorder” rule creativity, even if the basic needs of safety and nutrition are neglected. As artist mother Rose Mary’s (Naomi Watts) logic surmises, “food will be gone in an hour, but an oil painting will last forever.” For four children who have not eaten in three days, this misses the fact that they may not be around to gaze at canvases. Still Rose Mary’s yellow doors on every domicile will move you.

Woody Harrelson has never been better than he is as Rex, Jeanette’s father. His family wolf calls, his windowed-castle blueprints, and his tenderness toward Jeanette’s burn scars outshine his drunken recklessness. He puts Jeanette in harms way, yet believes she can fend for herself. His skedaddling if often a betrayal of nurture. He can be brilliant and then dastardly drunken-crazy within the same afternoon.

Brie Larson plays the adult Jeanette; Chandler Head plays Jeanette as a child; Ellen Anderson plays the teenaged Jeanette. All are arrestingly good. David, Jeanette husband ( Max Greenfield) weathers his part well. When Jeanette admonishes him with, ” When it comes to my family, let me do the lying !”, we cringe with him. Robin Barlett as the abusive, West Virginia gramma will keep people from naming their offspring Erma.

Yet, I loved being reminded of Jeanette’s story. I spoke with her for eight minutes during her Indianapolis book tour, and immediately liked her easy warmth and truth-telling. I did not get the same vibe from Brie Larson’s portrayal. I hold the screenwriters and the director at fault. Wall’s tale is one of acceptance and acknowledgement of lessons learned. Her hard-scrabble youth did not focus on forgiveness or the need for parental atonement. She did not see herself as a victim. Read her 2005 book and see what I mean.

“Demolition”

A little patch of off-beat pairings is good for the soul. And who doesn’t love Jake Gyllenhaal and Naomi Watts ?  Throw in Chris Cooper and a theme about paying attention to our emotions, and we have an adult version of “Inside Out” and “Frozen”.

In Brian Sipe’s script it is easier to block feelings with narcissistic wants like M&M’s, sort of like re-channeling your toddler with treats, than it is to honestly feel and deal with guilt or grief or unhappiness. Jake Gyllenhaal is both inattentively robotic and jive-dancingly free in this film. Getting between the two is our story arc.

Gyllenhaal is , yet again, another soulless, financial investment firm bigshot, who is being weaned in his father-in-law’s ( Chris Cooper’s) company. There is at first an almost sinister aspect in his inability to express any kind of caring. A beautifully filmed accident scene leaves his wife Julia ( Heather Lind ) dead. Stop action images offer us an ER room’s bloody sheets and vacant crash cart.

This is not a traditional comedy, but a film trying to document the struggle some have in finding  their identity and their way. Davis Mitchell (Gyllenhaal) follows a number of roads, most of them easy and marked ” Dead End” and ” Wrong Way”. In one terrifying scene, we think he is tricking the teen-age son of Naomi Watts ( Karen) into shooting him in the chest.

Davis verbalizes that he never really knew his wife, and that he didn’t love her. Her image reoccurring in puddles and hazed mirrors contradicts this. What we know is that he doesn’t pay attention ,yet  he is self-absorbed with his workouts and in his grooming. He even shaves his chest hair.  Oft naked physically on screen, he is never naked emotionally. We even see Gyllenhaal, as Davis, sitting on the john with his toes turned in – retentive to a fault.

In a script that reminds me of  “Her” ( reviewed Feb. 2015)  in its loneliness and in its obsession, Naomi Watts pays keen attention to a series of self-confessional letters directed at a vending machine company. She is the customer complaint department in her boss/boyfriend’s business. She, as a pot-smoking responder, feels his pain and admires his honesty. They stalk each other and have us wondering if “soul-mates” are made for us to find. The song “Crazy On You” is the undercurrent.

Chris Cooper, as Karen’s father and as Davis’s boss, regrets that there is no word like “widow” or “orphan” in our language to address the loss of a child. ” We need a word for this.”, Cooper intones. Davis sees everything as a metaphor: “I am the uprooted tree”, ” the cold front that collided…”. More letter writing ensues, ” Dear Vending Company, there is something else…” Davis’ self-disclosure is pathetically funny. We know he has caring parents ( they may drive a station wagon), though no friends surface. He believes that like a bad gait, if you wish to fix something, you have to tear it all apart. Here the demolition begins literally with Davis buying a bulldozer on e-bay and taking his shiny, modern home down. Sledge hammers are used with abandon as  the refrigerator, office computer and bathroom light fixtures and stall doors are broken down or dissembled. Karen’s son, Chris ( Judah Lewis ), adds another dimension of anger and angst. Friendship is developed, something they both need.

French Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee , who also directed Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”, ( reviewed  Jan. 2015 ) believes in redemption and changing for the better. Audiences feel the upward draft, and you smile as you leave the theater. Quirky and ultimately satisfying.