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Short Take: Luce

(Julius Onah; USA, NEON; Opening August 2)

A Virginia high school becomes a Crucible (pun intended) in Julius Onah’s Sundance-feted adaptation of JC Lee’s off-Broadway play, which wrings an intriguing variation on the witch-hunt trope, for an era of identity politics. Eritrean-born Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is as modest as big men on campus get, but he nevertheless raises the hackles of his African-American history teacher Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who suspects something sinister beneath the facade. Her skepticism puts her first at odds, and then—after a series of mounting complications involving mislaid explosives and accusations of sexual impropriety—in complicitous contact with Luce’s adoptive parents (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts), textbook liberals who, à la Bradley Whitford’s pater in Get Out, surely would have voted for Obama a third term if possible.

That the 44th President’s name gets directly invoked along the way concretizes Lee’s zeitgeist-baiting aspirations, and the overall feeling of a work styled more as a glancing, fretful inventory of social concerns is hard to shake. But there’s also something to be said for simply placing provocative ideas in conversation, and the actors, especially Harrison and Watts, make for eloquent mouthpieces. The question of whether Luce’s appropriation as a symbol of social progress is compatible with any sort of authentic humanity is rendered excitingly indeterminate via Harrison’s performance, which suggests a smart kid figuring out how to do the best imitation of himself at all times, while Watts inhabits a motherly devotion complicated by the whisper of impostor syndrome.

When Onah and Lee go for the grand sociological gesture, as in a grotesquely confrontational mid-film setpiece depicting the abjection of a minor character, Luce reeks of effort, but when it hunkers down with its characters and their complications, it’s compelling stuff.—Adam Nayman

This is a longer version of the review that appeared in print.