How does the movie Luce end? You’ll come to a different answer than the person sitting next to you in the theater — and that’s the whole point of this thought-provoking film, out August 2. Luce doesn’t editorialize. A viewer's understanding of Luce depends on whatever baggage, blind-spots, and preconceptions she has regarding the movie’s weighty topics, which include — but aren’t limited to— race, adoption, privilege, power, and parenthood.
Luce’s ending may be up for debate, but we can all agree on how Luce begins: Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harris), track and debate star, completes an assignment for his history class to write from the perspective of a historical figure. Luce turns in a charged manifesto in the voice of Frantz Fanon, a writer who believed colonialism could only be overcome through violence. His teacher, Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), interprets Luce’s paper as a red flag. After all, Luce is a former child soldier adopted from Eritrea — who knows what feelings of violence he may harbor beneath that perfect exterior?
Harriet calls an informal meeting with Amy (Naomi Watts), Luce’s adoptive mother. From there, watch the dominos fall. Amy and her husband, Peter (Tim Roth), a wealthy liberal couple, reconsider their perception of their son. Is Luce deliberately conspiring against Harriet, or is Harriet clouded by her own biases? Is Luce sinister, or caught up in an overblown misunderstanding? Luce shuttles between all the characters' perspectives but Luce's — so the mystery can only be solved by you.
Still, we spoke to stars Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer at a press junket in New York and tried to get some answers.
Refinery29: Luce all begins with a school paper. The audience doesn’t read a word of it — but your characters do. Was there really a paper?
Octavia Spencer: "Yeah, I had to grade it. Line for line."
Naomi Watts: "And Kelvin really wrote it."
Spencer: "The paper is the inflection point for all of the events that come after. But here’s the confusing part. He was given the assignment to write in the voice of this person! Where it all gets excitingly tricky, and where the audience has to decide who they believe or how their own belief system works is: If he was given the assignment to write in the voice of another, why, then would you think that these are beliefs that he subscribes to personally."
Watts: "It’s the catalyst that unsettles everything and unravels people."
The audience has to meet the movie halfway – it’s very participatory. I’m wondering for you, when you were reading the script, what was going on in your heads?
Watts: "Exactly that. I kept wanting to know the answers. But Julius kept reiterating, ‘This is a depiction, it’s not an endorsement.’ We’re not trying to organize it and say, ‘This is the person who was right.’ Or, ‘This was the wrong person.’ He wants you to sit with it, spend time with it, examine it, talk with other people that you’re able to trust and say, ‘What does it mean to you and how do you grow from this?’ Addressing those uncomfortable, awkward conversations means you’re halfway to understanding the movie."
We live in a world of ending explainers. Why do you think it’s important for audiences to have movies that are ambiguous like this, and also for you? What are the challenges of acting in a movie without answers?
Spencer: "Because life isn’t clear cut. The ambiguities are where you learn. That’s where the conversation begins. If it sits with you so much that you think about it, you then have to examine what your own motives are, your own life. I couldn’t stop thinking about each of these characters. Of course, I believe Harriet. But at some point — and this is why wanted to do the role — I had to put myself in Amy’s place. I had to put myself in Peter’s place. What would I do in that situation?"
Watts: "That’s the question people are left with. How would I deal? Who would I be? Which character am I most likely to tap into?"
The ending is so potent — those final moments of Luce running. I’m sure everyone has interpreted his face differently. Have you given any thought to the ending? Is it cheating to ask?
Watts: "It is kind of a cheat. But great that you want to know! We want to know. But it’s not for us to decide."
Spencer: "That’s why it's thought provoking. You might be thinking one thing, but someone else might think, ‘He’s relaxing. He’s finally relaxing.’ There are so many perspectives that one can take. That’s what’s so exciting about the movie."
What did you learn from Luce?
Spencer: "I always grow with characters. But what I had to do with Harriet, because we have different ideologies — I had to separate myself from Harriet and know portraying her that I had to be more open-minded. There are blind spots that we might have to address that we didn’t know we have. It was great to play a character that had so many blind spots."
Watts: "I grow every time from telling someone else's story. In this case it felt like a great snippet of life, of ordinary people. Of how something can turn them so they’re facing extraordinary circumstances all of a sudden. I love the conversation that we had all the way through the movie. This film, all things going well, will stand the test of time."