LUCE (2019) – Provocative Tale Unlikable and Unrealistic

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Octavia Spencer, Kelvin Harrison, Jr., and Naomi Watts in LUCE (2019).

Some movies try too hard to be thought-provoking and provocative. They go out of their way to push the audience’s buttons, and as such don’t achieve their intended results.

LUCE (2019) is such a movie. While it tries to tell a worthwhile story, it just can’t seem to get out of its own way. It has characters making extreme decisions that distance it from what would otherwise be a realistic story.

LUCE opens with high school student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) giving a speech to his school community, his proud parents Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth) in the audience. Luce is a talented student, obviously the darling of his school. One of his classmates refers to him as “their Obama.” Luce is black, his adoptive parents white, as Amy and Peter adopted him when he was a young child from war-torn Eritrea.

Luce has his whole positive future ahead of him, but with that, comes a lot of pressure, responsibility, and expectation, something that Luce is definitely feeling even though he shrugs it off with his smiling persona.

A teacher Luce does not like, Ms. Wilson (Octavia Spencer) contacts Amy with some troubling news about her son. Ms. Wilson explains she assigned an essay in which the students were to write from the perspective of a historical figure, and Luce chose a militant leader who believed that killing one’s enemies held the answers to life’s problems. Worried that Luce might actually believe what he had written, considering the violent childhood he experienced, Ms. Wilson searched his locker and found illegal fireworks.

Amy is shocked that Ms. Wilson violated her son’s rights and went into his locker without his permission, but the teacher assures her she only has Luce’s best interests at heart. She gives Amy the fireworks and asks her to have a conversation with her son. Amy does, and Luce’s answer is one, he wrote the essay in the mindset of its subject, not his own, and two, he and his friends share lockers, and so they often put things there that aren’t his. He also describes Ms. Wilson as the type of teacher who crosses the line, who makes examples of students, and who was responsible for getting his friend kicked off the track team.

Amy and Peter seem satisfied with Luce’s answers, although they go back and forth with different elements of his story, but when more accusations arise from Ms. Wilson, they believe that she has it out for their son.

If only the story were this simple.

But it’s not. See, from the get-go, even though Luce has all the right answers, it’s clear from watching him interact with his parents and his teacher, that there is something more going on. In short, he’s not so innocent. But just what is he guilty of, exactly? What is he doing, and why is he doing it? And hence, the thought-provoking aspects of the story come into play.

Luce is feeling a lot of pressure. Everyone looks up to him, and he feels the stress of expectation. He also feels responsible for his friends, and so when his buddy is kicked off the track team for having weed in his locker and as a result loses a scholarship, ruining his only chance of going to college, Luce is outraged that his friend is made an example of, and yet he is largely left unscathed.

And then there are the decisions made by certain characters which didn’t always seem real. Parents Amy and Peter make the extreme decision to lie and potentially ruin another person’s career to protect their son’s future.

Ms. Wilson in spite of her best intentions fails to communicate properly with her school’s administration, with Luce’s parents, and ultimately with Luce. She goes it alone which is almost always a disaster. Ms. Wilson messes up so badly it’s difficult to take her character seriously.

And Luce himself is an odd character. Supposedly the darling of his school, he is nonetheless manipulative, secretive, and downright sinister. The first two categories make him like a lot of high school teenagers, but the last one, the sinister angle, that one made him less real and far more contrived. At the end of the day, I didn’t like Luce one iota, and I also didn’t think he came off as a real person.

It’s a humorless screenplay by Julius Onah, who also directed, and J.C. Lee, based on Lee’s play of the same name. The point seems to be this is how difficult life is for a teenage boy like Luce, but Luce ultimately is such an annoying character I didn’t care how difficult his life was.

His parents Amy and Peter are just as annoying. When they lie to protect their son, they do so knowing full well that their decision will ruin a teacher’s career. Oh well. Gotta protect our son. The future needs him.

Really?

The one thing that LUCE has going for it is the acting. Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Octavia Spencer are all excellent, but it’s young Kelvin Harrison Jr. who steals the show as Luce. He nails the teen’s smooth talking exterior, his inner conflict, and his unabashed self-confidence that he can do just about anything. One thing though I didn’t like was from the get-go, I did not trust Luce, and so I thought Harrison played up that angle a little too much. Harrison was also excellent in the above average horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).

I also enjoyed Andrea Bang as Luce’s girlfriend Stephanie.

And the film does have a potent hard-hitting music score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury which adds to the story’s dissonance.

But that being said, there really wasn’t much else to enjoy about LUCE as it’s not an enjoyable movie, and this is on purpose. Director Julius Onah seems to be saying that life for youths like Luce is complicated and tough, and getting through it is no picnic. But the way Luce and his family go about it raises red flags throughout and removes this potential thought-provoking story from any kind of realistic conversation.

LUCE ends as it begins, with Luce delivering a powerful speech to his school community. In this speech, Luce talks about being proud to be an American, because here in America, people get second chances. They get to move on from their mistakes, learn from them, and become better people.

All well and good, except that in this case, I don’t think Luce and his family deserve a second chance because they lied and manipulated their way through the first one.

—END—

 

SHUT IN (2016) Wastes Fine Performance by Naomi Watts

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I saw SHUT IN (2016) for the simple reason that Naomi Watts was playing the lead role, and movies with women in the leads, although becoming more common, are still few and far between.

This weekend I was treated to two movies with women in the lead— this one, and Amy Adams in ARRIVAL (2016).

And while Naomi Watts is very good here— really good— sadly, the movie is not.  In fact, SHUT IN is pretty awful.

Psychologist Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) works out of her home in rural Maine, and the film opens with her and her husband about to take their troubled teen son Stephen (Charlie Heaton) to a new school since he was expelled from their local one.  Stephen does not want to go and thinks his parents are trying to get rid of him.  Mary says goodbye as her husband and Stephen drive away, but in an ensuing argument in the car, there is a tragic accident, killing Mary’s husband and leaving Stephen in a vegetative state.

The action switches to six months later, where Mary is treating a young disturbed deaf boy  named Tom (Jacob Tremblay) while also having to care for her now bedridden and unresponsive son Stephen.

One night, just before the arrival of a massive snow/ice storm, little Tom shows up at her house, as he has run away, upset that he’s about to move to a new foster home.

I have to interrupt this plot summary with a complaint, and I have a few of those regarding this movie.  At this point in time, what a perfect setting for a thriller- a woman trapped in her home without power due to an ice storm along with her comatose son and an emotionally disturbed deaf child.  What a perfect set-up for them having to deal with some sort of outside threat.  At this moment, I was thinking, this has the makings of an excellent thriller.

How can a movie with so strong a set-up mess it up so badly?

Read on.

First off, this situation is never allowed to develop because before the ice storm arrives, little Tom runs away again and disappears into the woods.  After a brief search, he is presumed dead.  Creepiness ensues when Mary begins to hear strange noises in her house in the middle of the night while catching glimpses of what looks like Tom sneaking about.  Her doctor, Dr. Wilson (Oliver Platt), who communicates with her via Skype, chalks it up to her emotional state and says she needs more sleep.

I had a lot of problems with the screenplay by Christina Hodson which seemed to throw common sense out the window.

First, when Tom arrives at Mary’s home, it’s in the middle of the night, and he’s alone. He’s asleep in her car with the driver’s side window smashed, inside her garage.  Now, she lives in the middle of nowhere in rural Maine!   Just how did this young deaf boy all by his lonesome travel from wherever he was through the snowy countryside in the middle of the night and get to her house?  Not only isn’t this explained, no one in the movie seems at all surprised by this.

Plus, we’re expected to believe that this boy smashed  the car window to let himself inside?  If he’s inside her garage, why didn’t he just knock on her door so she can let him into the house?

Then, when he runs away again, it’s assumed that he disappeared into the woods and probably died.  There’s even a ridiculous scene where the sheriff is at Mary’s house and says as much, and it’s all so casual— in fact, that they’ve been chatting over coffee, and it’s only a few hours since the boy disappeared!  There’s no sense of urgency.  It’s laughable.

Then, when she starts hearing noises in the middle of the night, and she catches glimpses of Tom inside her house, no one in the story suggests the common sense answer that just maybe he never left the house but is hiding somewhere inside?  I certainly thought that, but not one character in this film considers this even once.  Again, it’s common sense thrown out the window.

And so the premise of these characters shut in due to a winter storm having to face an unseen threat never comes to fruition because the threat is a different one altogether, one that is so ludicrous I had to fight to not laugh.  The revelation in the film’s third act is a complete disappointment.

As directed by Farren Blackburn, SHUT IN is a by the numbers thriller.  It actually plays like a horror film, even though there’s nothing supernatural going on here.  Worse yet, there’s nothing all that horror-like happening either.  There are your standard jump scares, your false scares where a character jumps and it’s revealed that oh, it’s just a harmless raccoon, and worst of all, the it was just a dream sequence.This happens more than once.  We see something horrible occur, and then Mary wakes up from a nightmare.  I felt very cheated by the frequent use of this plot device.

The third act becomes standard horror fare, as Mary has to defend herself from the threat which is finally revealed, but like I said, it’s such a ridiculous plot point, I couldn’t take it seriously at all.

Which is too bad because this movie wastes a really good performance by Naomi Watts.  She plays both the tired, overtaxed emotionally drawn mother and the sympathetic insightful child psychologist.  It’s a neat perfomrance, but she’s stuck in a very poorly constructed unbelievable story.

The two young actors are completely wasted here.  Charlie Heaton, who was so good as Winona Ryder’s oldest son in the hit TV series STRANGER THINGS (2016), spends the bulk of this movie lying on a bed staring into space.  Child actor Jacob Tremblay, who was phenomenal in ROOM (2015) plays the deaf  Tom here and has no lines of dialogue, but worse yet spends most of the movie off screen showing up in glimpses in Mary’s dreams.

This changes in the film’s third act, but like I said, the revelation is so ridiculous at this point in the movie I stopped caring.

SHUT IN is an inferior thriller that suffers most from a poorly constructed story that not only wastes the talents of the actors involved, but also what could have been a nice setting and premise for an effective thriller.

It’ll leave you scratching your head and feeling cheated, in disbelief that this story was the best the writers could come up with.

Rather than feeling claustrophic and shut in, you’ll be feeling disappointed and shut out.

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