Luce is not a movie you passively watch. It's much too thought-provoking for that. This adaptation of J.C. Lee's play wants to challenge viewers. The story is, at the core, about how we perceive race. At times, it puts elements in place that get you thinking along a certain line, then points out how simple getting you to embrace assumptions was. You're just a person watching a movie; you didn't anticipate having your own subtle prejudices exposed.

The titular character is played magnificently by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (It Comes at Night). He's a star student at his high school, where he excels at sports, public speaking, and debate. Luce's background belies his model exterior, though. He spent the first seven years of his life living in a war-torn African country, where he was trained as a child soldier. A white liberal couple, Amy and Peter Edgar (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth), then adopted him. Through therapy and love, they helped him heal the wounds from his traumatic past.

Or did they? Luce's history teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), isn't so sure. He's written a paper on Frantz Fanon, the philosopher who argued that violence was a justifiable response to colonialism. This has spurred Harriet to search his locker, where she found a paper bag full of illegal fireworks.

No more about the plot should be revealed here. Luce is reminiscent of John Patrick Shanley's play (and subsequent film) Doubt, in which a nun becomes convinced a priest in a Catholic school is a pedophile, despite having no real evidence to support such a claim. Luce, by all appearances, is a good kid. A supporting character even compares him to Barack Obama. Harriet thinks it's an act. No one else agrees with her.

Although Luce is the central character, most of the movie is from the POV of the two prominent women in his life. Amy is reluctant to believe her son could do anything inappropriate, even when circumstantial evidence begins to suggest he may have done a lot more than bring fireworks to school. Harriet, on the other hand, twists every innocuous thing he says or does into a validation of her suspicions. The question becomes: Is she just biased against him in some way, or is Luce pulling a master passive-aggressive routine?

That is really the heart of Luce. The film's primary statement is that society often compartmentalizes African-Americans into one of two categories: “safe,” non-threatening role models or thugs. Furthermore, it suggests this compartmentalization can be practiced by blacks and whites equally. Luce expresses resentment for being put in such a box, accusing Harriet of demanding that he live up to an idealistic level few, if any, people could ever really achieve. If he's not allowed to make mistakes or occasionally experience anger, how is he to be truly human?

An interesting counterpart comes in the form of Luce's friend, who's kicked off the track team after being caught in possession of marijuana. Here's a kid with talent, but because he got busted, he's automatically viewed by Harriet as a thug.

Scenes with Amy and Peter put yet another spin on the theme. She's intent on believing Luce to be the “perfect” child; she may be unfair in holding him to that standard. Peter, meanwhile, is a little quicker to believe that their son's past might not be as resolved as they think. Tension between them rises as they grapple with the either/or dilemma.

To its credit, Luce keeps you guessing about the character for a long time. Expect to go back and forth in what you think of him, and expect to be wrong pretty much every time you think you've got him pegged. An answer to what he did/did not do is provided at the end. True to form, it comes loaded with moral ambiguity. Director Julius Onah has no interest in easy resolutions. He wants to give you something to think about for days afterward. You will.

Watts, Spencer, and Roth all give excellent performances. The anchor is Harrison, who hits just the right note with Luce, so that you sense both the desire to please the adults around him and the frustration of being put in a metaphorical box. Their work brings the story's ideas powerfully to life. Luce is an intelligent, provocative film you'll absolutely want to see and discuss.

out of four

Luce is rated R for language throughout, sexual content, nudity and some drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.