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“Really, it’s just about people—whether they conform to what we think they are,” says Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s eponymous character in Luce. The high school student is engaged in a classroom debate with his history teacher, the self-appointed respectability politics enforcer Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer), but he also speaks to the very essence of the film itself. Luce’s plot takes a number of engrossing turns as characters attempt to reconcile the disparities between the people they know so well and the deeds others allege they committed. But it all comes back to the characters themselves, Luce chief among them.

At his core, Luce is a model student thriving in suburban Arlington after being pulled out of an Eritrean war zone. Describing him further proves difficult because he means so many things to different people, some of whom—especially his adoptive white parents (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth) and school faculty—maintain an investment in seeing that he fulfills their expectations. From there, it only requires a few misunderstandings to ignite a powder keg of anxieties and assumptions surrounding race, class, immigration, and privilege.

While this description might seem to cast Luce as merely a passive participant in the story, nothing could be farther from the truth. He’s the film’s central enigma, with each scene concealing as much about his nature as it reveals. Harrison, a 25-year-old rising star who’s already turned in psychologically complex work in films such as Monsters and Men and It Comes at Night, endows the film with equal parts pathos and pathology through his performance. Shortly after Luce’s theatrical bow, I sat down with both Harrison and director Julius Onah to discuss their approach to creating the film’s central character, how they navigated his many dualities, and where they made determinations about his sincerity.

Who is Luce, for each of you? Inasmuch as it’s possible to pin him down.

Julius Onah: Whew!

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: He’s a 17-year-old kid who’s insanely intelligent. He’s gone through, seen, and overcome a lot. As he moves forward, he’s trying to make sure he feels protected and seen—that he’s not put, like he says, in a box and that his peers aren’t doing the same. He feels like the future generation is the future, so shouldn’t we all be supporting each other to do that? That makes him the budding revolutionary he wants to be—and is, in a lot of ways.

JO: As Kelvin said, we viewed him as this budding revolutionary, this kid who has incredible intellectual horsepower. But it’s like he’s got a Lamborghini with no license to drive. He contains all these multitudes within him, but, at the same time, has a tremendous amount of expectation on him from everyone around him who wants him to live his life on a symbolic, representational level, in order to prove whatever point they want. This kid is trying to negotiate the balance between “Who am I really?” and “Who do I have to be to make everyone around me happy and survive in America?”

How did you handle the meta consideration of finding the person of Luce without losing his symbolism?

KH: I’ve been telling this story that I grew up in New Orleans, the South, and went to a private school for high school. New Orleans is very laidback, we’ve got a lot of slang, which is what it is. But then I went to this majority white school and was one of five, six, less than 10 black people in the entire high school. The first thing they told me was, “You can’t say ‘yeah.’ It’s ‘yes.’” They were like, “What do your parents do? Why do you dress like that?” I started judging myself and changing who I was or what I looked like to assimilate to the culture. I took a lot of that and brought it into Luce and his journey coming from Eritrea, and to his parents saying, “We don’t know how to pronounce your name, so we’re changing it.” [laughs] And Harriet being like, “You need to do these things in order to be great.” It’s like [to her], “Whatever I am isn’t enough for you. You’re judging me based on where I came from, and now you’re telling my parents I wrote a violent paper.” It’s insane.

Watching Luce, I wondered if he’s played as if the character is the way that he is at his core and the audience just gets to discover that, or if the events of the film goad him into becoming the way that he is. Did either of you make a decision to play it one way?

JO: As a director, I have a conception of the character, but I always believe that the actor has to live it truthfully. We talked a tremendous amount about where this guy was coming from and the specific biographical details of that. But, at the same time, the beauty of it is these moments that just appear as actors are living it. One of my favorite moments in the film is when Luce is in the shed with his friend, Orlicki, who says, “DeShaun is black black.” And Luce instantly tries to defuse the situation. For a moment, he retreats into himself, but right after, he smacks his friend’s leg, and they start laughing. It tells you so much about who this guy is, constantly measuring every moment, situation and expectation from people.

So, in terms of the overall of the character, there’s that human part of him that’s just a 17-year-old kid trying to figure out who he is like most 17-year-old kids are. But then there’s a part of him that’s brilliant and well read; he’s been brought out of a real, physical war zone and thrust into this psychological, emotional and sociological war zone of culture in America. He’s taken some of the skills from survival there and applying it here, constantly reading everything around him looking for incoming fire, ducking and covering, reshaping and reforming himself as he navigates all of this. That’s where some of the symbolic version of this character comes from. He knows what he has to represent to literally survive.

You mention incoming fire, and it reminds me that I read about how every time Luce shuts his locker, you added in the sound of gunfire. Where did that idea come from?

JO: A lot of people, and this started at the script level and in friends and family screenings, they would say things like, “If we just had a flashback to when he was a child soldier…” Which, to me, was like saying, “If you just made it easier to pigeonhole this character…” The minute you start doing all that, they can say that this is some PTSD story. But when you see someone walking down the street, unless you’re Bruce Willis in Unbreakable, you can’t touch them and flash back to learn what happened to them. All you have are your eyes and ears, and from there we make judgments about who people are. But, at the same time, I did want to suggest some of his history, so I said, “What’s a more sophisticated way to make you feel some of the pressure this kid is coming from without spelling it out?” And that’s where I decided, “What if we embedded gunshots throughout the locker, but we changed the pitch of them throughout the movie?” And also, the bells in the hallway that he hears in the school get more pitched up. Slowly, over the course of the film, you’re feeling that pressure rising and don’t even know it.

If people wanted a flashback, do you think they really wanted to feel pity for Luce that they didn’t otherwise have an outlet for?

JO: For me, I think they want to be able to put him in a box, and we all have that tendency. We want to be able to explain away the things we don’t understand, and that defies the purpose of asking the question. Once we make it easy for the audience, there’s no point to tell the story.

I saw the film for the second time yesterday and found myself watching it like a courtroom drama, building cases for or against characters, looking for silver bullets that might explain them…

JO: That’s great to hear.

…but then I realized at some point that this way of viewing was leading me to look for some kind of coherent explanation. Luce is all this one way or Ms. Wilson is all that way, and that one silver bullet will explain who they are, which goes against exactly what the film wants us to think.

JO: Yeah, it’s not like some epiphany we’re stating here, but it’s not the way the world works. I feel like if we’re going to tell these stories, there’s often a version of the story—and I’m not going to criticize any of these films. I understand why these stories are told, whether to give us hope or understanding or a sense of clarity. But, at a certain point, you have to ask when it’s disserving us. There aren’t easy morals or digestible answers to hundreds, thousand-year-old questions of identity that are now really bubbling to the surface in this country. When you look at the headlines in this country, the more we continue to think there’s an easy answer, the more we’re going to deal with these problems in a way that doesn’t solve anything. I felt the only way—and this started with J.C. [Lee]’s brilliant play—to talk about these things is to grapple with the fact that there isn’t a silver bullet.

There’s such a push and pull between sincerity and deceit for the character of Luce. It’s tempting, based on what we learn about him, to doubt the authenticity of any given moment. How did you all handle that dissonance that we experience?

KH: Truthfully? Because everything is to be played with the truth, it’s almost hard to keep track of the truth, even as Luce, of when he’s trying to get something that he needs or when he’s genuine. I wouldn’t even know at a certain point because it was always being sincere. It all kind of blurs after a while.

JO: I think that’s a really astute observation of it because, as a 17-year-old kid, you don’t know all the time. You’re just reacting and dealing with the fire of the world around you.

There’s a very ambiguous scene about midway through the film when Luce practices his speech before an empty auditorium. Are we meant to know what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling there? Did you make the determination of whether this is true self because he’s not performing before an audience, or just a rehearsal of emotion so he can play convincingly when the seats are full?

KH: I don’t think we made that determination, did we?

JO: Not explicitly. We never talked about it on that level. I think what’s so tricky and interesting with a character like this is that there’s always going to be an internal emotional life. However, it ends up being projected in that specific moment is going to be up to the audience. That’s why I love hearing this interpretation of yours. But what I think is sincere is this 17-year-old boy feeling the suffocating pressure of all these expectations, and it’s almost even harder when there’s nobody there in front of you because you realize what a performance it has to be. Whether there’s somebody there or not, you have to be on all the time.

KH: There’s some truth to that. I can remember being in the moment, considering the series of events that led up to it with being the star pupil, seeing what happened to DeShaun and Stephanie, and then my black teacher—who we talked about being in a weird way like a second mom—go behind my back and tell my white parents that maybe I’m a threat because of who I was is a lot! And then to have my dad turn on me like that [snaps fingers] on the drop of a dime simply because he heard an accusation and be like, “This is bullshit, you’re full of shit.” It’s a lot. I think to go through the process of fighting for his identity and rights, in that moment he’s saying this thing about how his mother couldn’t pronounce his name, so they renamed me, it hurts. Because it reminds him of the things he’s had to go through since the beginning that he’s had to suppress to move forward. There’s a lot of truth. He’s disappointed, and he feels scared and abandoned. He’s very alone in that moment, which you can see. But it could be performative because there are moments where he’s like, “I’m good at acting!” [laughs]

There are a pair of instances in the film where it’s alluded to that Luce showed cruelty to a fish. Is that at all a nod to the possibility that he might be a sociopath given that being a commonly recognized trait for them?

JO: Again, we’re just always trying to present things as truthfully as possible. I’m sure every person in this room has done something as a kid to a living creature where you’re just testing the limits. I remember things with my dogs when I was six or seven like, “What if we fold the dog’s legs this way?” You’re sort of playing, but you’re also testing your power. Down to holding the magnifying glass over ants, whatever the case might be. These are all things where we lay out the story and just tell it. Then it’s up to us as to how we want to view it. Do we want to view this as a child doing something or through the lens of race? His history coming from violence? And then how are we going to choose to feel about it afterwards.

Luce, both the film and the character, rail against the “model minority” archetype. But while he describes it as a straightjacket, is it possible that he also slyly sees it as a shield under which he can hide some of his actions?

KH: I think he’s aware of that. There’s a bit of not completely fully understanding the privilege he gets from his white parents. But at the same time, I do think he knows Principal Dan is like, “This one’s my thoroughbred. He’s on my team, I know how to work him, I know how to get him on my side, I know if I bring my parents they’ll probably donate money to the school.” He can finesse his mother right before, and she might do exactly what he needs her to. But there’s another part of him that doesn’t know how much he can do. He’s just testing it out. He’s reactive, just living in the moment and seeing what he’s capable of.

JO: What’s interesting about him is his duality. He’s grown up with a white family, adjacent to white privilege because he can walk into school with his mom and dad. They can offer him the kind of protection that DeShaun would never get. One of the things I would often tell Naomi and Octavia is, “Imagine if that big showdown happens in the third act, but it was DeShaun’s parents who walked in.” There’s no way they could engage and carry themselves in the way Luce’s parents do! But at the same time, Luce is still black. When he walks out of his house, he will be treated and viewed when he’s not with his parents in the same way that a young black man would be. He alludes to that when it comes to smoking weed.

So, part of all this is how far the model-minority thing can go for Luce. How far does this privilege extend for him? How much can he get away with, or when are they going to decide that he’s not a saint anymore, but a monster? And the inability to negotiate that. Because in either case, whether you’re a saint or a monster, it’s saying that you’re not human. Though one of them comes with privileges, it’s still saying that you don’t have access to a full spectrum of humanity. While on some level, everyone around Luce thinks that if they lift him up to perfection, it proves, one, how open-minded and progressive they are and, two, the system works. What they don’t always fully recognize is that not only is it discarding the people who aren’t doing that, it’s also creating—on an emotional and psychological level—an alienation within Luce. And, in this case, both people are hurt as opposed to arriving and doing the real work that makes it a possibility for everyone to have access to that full humanity.

You mention the big third-act showdown, and in both times I’ve seen Luce, the moment that gets the loudest gasp is when his adoptive white parents decide to go all in on a pretty bald-faced lie. What do you hope audiences take away about whiteness and its complicity in perpetuating the monster/saint dichotomy?

JO: An awareness of that complicity. There’s often the analogy used that fish don’t know they’re swimming in water—[the water’s] just there. When you have a space that’s built for your existence, you don’t feel the pressure points in the same way. You’re not always aware of the privileges you have and how those things can be weaponized. Sometimes, your good intentions can be a path that leads down—we know how the rest of that saying goes. I think the challenge for everybody, and that’s what I loved about telling this story, is that we are all limited and prisoners of our own perception. For some of us, that perception comes with more privilege. But specifically, for those who live on the top end of that power totem pole, there often isn’t an awareness of how even in the best of circumstances, one is contributing to the systems of power and privilege that exist. I think, hopefully, if we’ve done our job with the story, we’re not lecturing anybody or pointing the finger per se. We’re just asking the question.

Watching it again, I was struck by how many instances in the film there are where if the characters were just honest, transparent, or didn’t assume something about the other person, they could have avoided so many bad things. Is that a fair statement?

JO: Absolutely! I think we all know—and this is my first time meeting you, Marshall—how hard that is. It is so hard. It’s such a negotiation between ego and beliefs. All you have to do is look at who’s in power in this country right now and what he has the privilege to ignore. And then, by proxy, the people who choose to support him have the privilege to ignore. What was really interesting about Amy’s arc in the film is that you have her move from a lack of awareness to awareness, but then she has the privilege to decide how aware she wants to be or what she wants to turn off. She says, “You know, I just want to love my son, forget it!”

KH: Tim’s character is interesting because, from the get-go, he’s like, “Just tell him!”

JO: Tim and I often had these conversations about where Peter’s coming from. He came from more of a working-class background and rose to that level. But Amy grew up in the type of environment she’s already in, with more privilege. Peter very much just wants to parent. He’s always dealing with that, and this is where it gets so tricky with that negotiation of “when am I being a parent who just wants to look after my son? Or when am I being a white man who’s letting my baggage of privilege and my perceptions and assumptions about my son cloud the way I treat him?” And that’s where it becomes really messy and complicated.

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