After an hour and fifty minutes of watching Julius Onah’s Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize nominee film “Luce,” Winston Churchill’s famous, timeless description of the Soviet Union snapped into my head. “A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” he said. Yes. Perfect.

Here then is director Onah’s adaptation of J.C. Lee’s play “Luce,” which means light and rhymes with “ruse.”

The story begins in a fragment of upper middle class America, set in neat and clean Arlington,Virginia. There are no white picket fences to be seen, but we can sense them.

At the very center of Lee’s story is Luce (Kevin Harrison Jr.) a young student whom, we learn, was a boy soldier at 7 years old in war torn Eritrea, until a liberal white Arlington couple, Peter and Amy Edgar (Tim Roth and Naomi Watts) adopted him and brought him to America. Amy, a doctor, and hubby Peter have no children of their own.

We watch Dr. Amy, cool and smiling and unflappable, at her practice and at dinner with her son and husband, who seems to have long embraced the role of onlooker. Peter is, between many sips of white wine, a master of benign indifference.

There is a lot of white wine drinking here. Is there something we should be reading into this? Probably not. Then why do I?

Their home is neat, uncluttered. There are a few framed pictures and awards on the walls and mantle. But it’s soon clear that the shiniest award of Amy’s life is clearly her model son, who, with dedication and persistent attention, she polishes like a trophy.

Nourished like a rare plant, adopted son Luce grows up and thrives, becoming a model student, and captain of the track and debate teams. He is a proficient writer, getting all A’s and has a Chinese American girlfriend (Andrea Bang.)

He is a boy even the most Republican dad in Arlington would trust with his daughter. He’s Andy Hardy nice and polite, with the charisma of Barack Obama and cool moves of a young Sidney Poitier.

This promo moves along slowly, but we know something dark is going to happen, that a storm is coming.

When it does, all the players will share the rain and pain, but Luce’s teacher Harriet Wilson, (a powerful Octavia Spencer who steals the movie) with a hidden family secret of her own, will be the thunder. Wait for it.

Harriet, a no nonsense teacher, is disturbed by something in Luce’s assigned essay, that to her, throws a dark shadow on his light.

Concerned, she checks the locker he shares with teammates and finds a paper bag. Soon we learn that it’s full of extremely, dangerous and illegal fireworks.

In a moment of  “see something, say something,” Harriet takes the evidence and troubling essay to Amy. We ask, why not the principal first? And why does she seem to relish her actions?

She gives the bag to a disturbed Amy who takes it home and hides it. What?

After a long wait, the storm that has been rumbling in the distance breaks. Harriet’s home is vandalized and smeared with racist graffiti. No offender is found.

While we’re pondering Amy’s choices and discovering Harriet’s own shocking family secret, fireworks go off in Harriet’s office, setting it ablaze.

Then, out of nowhere, at a school party, a sexual assault occurs. Are Luce and his girlfriend Stephanie involved?

Questions arise and bloom. A meeting is held. Accusations are hurled, obvious truths are spoken, and then in a shocking, explosive moment, denied and dismissed, destroying one career and the credibility of everyone else.

The cast is first rate, each one an enigma. Each heart is hiding a secret that is never fully revealed.

We’re given the always dependable Naomi Watts, the perfectly cast Tim Roth, and the excellent 25-year-old Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the 17-year-old Luce. But “Luce” is Octavia Spencer’s movie. It is this Oscar and Golden Globe winning actress who provides the energy, the thunder, lightning and fireworks. Bravo.

A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. That which is so dense and secretive as to be totally indecipherable or impossible to foretell. “Luce” is worth seeing if only to watch Octavia Spencer light up the sky.

J.P.  Devine, of Waterville, is a former stage and screen actor.


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