Luce (15)****

Director: Julius Onah

Stars: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Octavia Spencer

Runtime: 110 mins

At 17, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr) has been living in the United States with his adoptive parents (Watts and Roth) since being brought from war-torn Eritrea as a young child. He’s very clever, popular with everyone and good at everything he does.

When a teacher (Spencer) sets an assignment, Luce writes it from the point of view of an African revolutionary who advocated violence, something that troubles her to the point of informing his parents. This is merely the intriguing starting point for a gripping film where race is not the main driver of the story, just one factor of its meaty and multi-layered tackling of so many thorny issues.

A sterling cast deliver first-rate performances of people who are fully-rounded on all sides. Luce himself is far from perfect, sometimes too smart for his own good, and the school are very keen for him to maximise his potential, while in his class are less achieving black kids who are not given the same encouragement.

He and his parents have robust and honest conversations, although the script does make up a slightly unconvincing reason for them not to confront Luce directly, and if there is any weak link in an otherwise outstanding script, it’s the speed with which Watts becomes suspicious of him that seems at odds with what we know, or think we know, about the family.

In the opening shot of the film we see an unknown someone put illegal fireworks in Luce’s locker at school, the discovery of which is also a concern for Spencer.

It’s just another element to keep us on our toes throughout some of the most morally ambiguous drama in American cinema for quite some time. Nothing has an easy answer as we delve into complex relationships and constant switching of perspectives and loyalties.

Mistrust and suspicion are woven throughout as the tension builds in every scene without giving any notion of where it will go next.

As things unravel we’re treated to many stunning scenes, much of it stomach-knotting but always calm and measured, then volatile when it needs to be, and the result is one of the films of the year.