Luce

⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rated: R for language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use.

Theater: Uptown.

 

Things are never what they seem in this tightly wound fable of modern morality and identity, adapted from a play by J.C. Lee, who co-wrote the film’s script with director Julius Onah. They take the complex, performer-driven story of a scandal at a northern Virginia high school involving a star student and make it supremely cinematic, concealing and revealing critical information to create a suspenseful family drama.

The centrifugal force is the brilliant young actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. (“It Comes at Night”), who plays high school golden boy Luce Edgar. When we first encounter him, he’s delivering a slick speech at an assembly, each pause and smile perfectly timed. We want desperately to believe in him, because Luce has a tragic background. His parents, Amy and Peter (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), adopted him as a kid from war-torn Eritrea. There’s a suggestion as to his violent childhood and the therapy he’s gone through, but references to it are simply deployed in conversations like land mines.

There’s only one person who doesn’t buy what Luce is selling: his history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer). Tension turns to suspicion and all-out war when she confronts Luce’s mother with a troubling discovery in Luce’s locker, presented alongside a paper espousing the beliefs of radical political philosopher Frantz Fanon. The fallout from this meeting, along with the miscommunication, secrets, lies and misplaced assumptions that go along with it, precipitate a turn of events that spirals out of control.

“Luce” is a contained drama that contains the whole nation, where every character represents an aspect of how race, class and justice collide in this country. It pushes us to figure out the truth for ourselves, but never makes it easy.

KATIE WALSH, Tribune Media Service

 

The Nightingale

⋆⋆½ out of four stars

Rated: R for violent and disturbing content, language and brief sexuality. In English, Aboriginal and Scottish Gaelic, subtitled.

Theater: Lagoon.

 

This historical drama marks the sophomore effort of writer/director Jennifer Kent, who made a smashing debut in 2014 with the creepy, devilishly intelligent horror movie “The Babadook.”

The story on offer here is more conventional, if no less disquieting: In 1825 Tasmania, an Irish convict named Clare (Aisling Franciosi) has finished serving her seven-year sentence in the island’s penal colony but is being held in indentured servitude by a ruthless British officer. When the young woman dares to demand the freedom that’s her due, her impertinence is rewarded by a ruthless rape; later, when her husband fights on her behalf, the episode ends with unspeakable acts of brutality.

Grim, enraging and unrelenting, “The Nightingale” then becomes a classic revenge story, reconceived to interrogate the form’s conventions as much as indulge in them. As she did in “Babadook,” Kent displays an authoritative control over the image and material, giving a genre historically interested in male heroics a welcome reality check. Epic studies in physical punishment such as “The Revenant” have nothing on this portrait of extreme suffering, which treats notions of white European expansion, male impunity and wilderness-taming with far sharper skepticism.

Like “The Revenant,” it becomes something of a slog, as Clare’s journey plods toward its maybe-inevitable end. This is indisputably a well made and often exquisitely beautiful movie, but it’s more admirable than enjoyable, especially when Kent’s subversion of the vendetta form withholds catharsis in favor of something far more ambiguous and unsatisfying. The final image says it all: Kent knows full well what we want, but she isn’t about to give it to us without a fight.

ANN HORNADAY, Washington Post