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Thrilling but also engaging, ‘Luce’ keeps us guessing

Is star student a role model or a powder keg? There’s tension, fear and insight on the way to learning the truth.

Provocative writings by a former child soldier (Kelvin Harrison Jr., center) prompt different responses from his teacher (Octavia Spencer, left) and his mom (Naomi Watts) in “Luce.”
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The star student/athlete at a Virginia high school is explaining to his teacher why Independence Day is his favorite holiday.

For one thing, he just loves those fireworks exploding in the sky.

On the surface, that seems pretty innocuous, right? Like a scene from a corny stage play.

And indeed, director Julius Onah’s “Luce” IS based on JC Lee’s play of the same name (staged at Evanston’s Next Theatre in 2014) — but given the context of the scene and what we know (or THINK we know) about the principals involved, that conversation about Independence Day and fireworks is anything but innocuous.

In fact, it’s flat-out chilling.

So much of “Luce” is about what’s happening beneath the surface and between the lines. Everyone says they’re searching for the truth — even as they lie and obfuscate and bend the facts to suit their particular agendas and world views.

Although bubbling to the boiling point with hot-button issues and intersecting plots involving race, political correctness, modern-day parenting and the challenges of living in a world in which even the slightest hint of a possible terrorist act has to be taken seriously, “Luce” never comes across as social commentary cloaked in melodrama.

Thanks in large part to the richly layered and perfectly paced screenplay by Onah and Lee, and the stunningly powerful performances by the quartet of lead players — three great veteran pros and one young star on the rise — each new and often game-changing revelation in “Luce,” no matter how shocking, stays within the realm of plausibility.

The story of the Edgars of Arlington, Virginia, sounds like the very embodiment of the American Dream. Amy (Naomi Watts) is a doctor. Her husband Peter (Tim Roth) is a successful financier.

Some 10 years ago, they adopted their son Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who had spent the first seven years of his life as a child soldier in war-torn Eritrea.

Amy and Peter absolutely saved Luce’s life — but over the last decade, he has become the light of THEIR lives: a loving son, a top student, a star on the debate team and the track team, a role model, a top candidate for elite colleges and universities.

At 17, Luce has never been in trouble, has never skipped class, has never disappointed his parents or his teachers or his coaches. He’s also handsome and charming and capable of dazzling just about anyone with his mega-watt personality and his verbiage.

It’s almost as if Luce is too good to be true.

The first hint not all might be as it seems with Luce comes when his unorthodox and passionate history teacher Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) assigns her students to write an essay in the voice of a controversial world figure.

Luce’s essay is so troubling to Harriet, she feels compelled to search his locker — where she makes an even more troubling discovery, indicating Luce might have been planning to carry out an act of devastating violence. As well-adjusted as Luce appears to be, one can’t discount the residual effects of those unimaginably horrific first seven years of his life.

Amy will hear nothing of it. Whatever violence Luce suffered or inflicted “has been dealt with,” she says. “It’s been processed.”

Luce also has an explanation for everything. And given some details we’ve learned about Harriet, it’s entirely possible she’s on some sort of mad vendetta against an innocent young man.

And yet there’s something disturbing about Luce’s imperturbable demeanor. Maybe he really IS a threat! No, that can’t be.

Or can it?

On more than one occasion, key characters in “Luce” rationalize and explain away dubious decisions and unethical and even criminal behavior by chalking it up to “miscommunication.” It’s a catch-all term invoked to assuage feelings of guilt or responsibility. If only we had communicated better, we could have avoided all this unpleasantness!

Peter (Tim Roth) and Amy (Naomi Watts) are proud of their adopted son in “Luce.”
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All the while, the film itself expertly communicates some valuable insights without a word of dialogue, e.g., Peter and Amy are constantly drinking wine, LOTS of wine, whenever they’re home together. During one heated discussion about their son, they make their way into the kitchen, and Amy opens a second bottle of wine, and they continue their dialogue without missing a beat. Their seemingly idyllic marriage might not be so perfect after all.

Time and again, “Luce” throws us off balance and keeps us guessing about the title character. Is he an emblematic figure, representing the very best of America’s future — or a dark and troubled sociopath, scarred beyond redemption by his past, simmering with rage and resentment, a tinderbox waiting to explode?

Or maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.

Filmed in cool tones of blues and grays, and augmented by an effectively dark score, “Luce” has the vibe of a scary movie in which the monster turns out to be …

Someone.

Or maybe no one.

Or maybe something else …