Almost every parent wants to see their children succeed. Not just the basics are provided, but nurturing, in the form of extra-curricular activities, tutoring, cheerleading at any sports game or public performance can pay many dividends down the road.
Meet Luce (admirably portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Hailing from war-torn Eritrea—where more children learn to fire a gun before driving a car—the lucky boy is adopted at the age of seven by two doting, American parents (Naomi Watts carries much of the film as Amy, serving up a performance that is entirely believable: notably her tell-all visage, during the decision to join the Liars Club; husband Peter also evokes a gritty, wide-ranging take from Tim Roth).
Now in his senior year and excelling in studies, sports and most certainly the debating club (public speaking becomes the bookends for this production), the much-admired Luce finds his world collapsing around him thanks to an honest essay taken from the point of view of French West Indian Frantz Funan (“The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.”)
Luce’s assignment convinces his teacher, Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer jumps the script’s several hurdles with elegance, poise and honesty), that her star pupil and the great black hope of the school is harbouring hurtful, perhaps deadly ideas about those who would block his path: she has his locker searched only to discover illegal, potentially life-ending fireworks inside.
From there, the film is a cat-and-mouse game between teacher and student. Wilson has no qualms about outing her suspicions (and the evidence) to the, at first, bewildered parents (Mom: “He couldn’t have”; Dad: “His defence (a shared locker space—the film’s weakest plot point) is bullshit.”
Also along for the tumultuous ride are Harriett’s principal (Norbert Leo Butz) and mentally challenged sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake turns in an astonishingly candid performance, trying to navigate through life with an institutional prison for the “different” amongst us and a semi-caring sibling who knows full well what it is like to be black in 21st century America.
A bit of sexual spice comes via Luce’s sometimes girlfriend, possibly sexual abuse victim, Stephanie (Andrea Bang).
The writing trust (Julius Onah, along with J.C. Lee) weave all of these disparate characters and plot elements into a production that leaves many questions unanswered. But that doesn’t matter because almost everybody in the room lies to save their butts, their scholarships or—most importantly—their own belief about their view of a child who, potentially, has the power to stoke his inner, raging anger into something far, far uglier than just a few fireworks going off in the schoolhouse. JWR