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One of the greatest thrills I’ve ever had as a movie critic, was being able to meet my favorite comedic actor — Alan Arkin — when he was one of the guests at the San Diego International Film Festival years ago. 

At their Film Insider Series, they often bring in guests that are associated with the movies they screen. It was cool to meet J.K. Simmons (Oscar winner for Whiplash). Earlier this year, they brought in a playwright and screenwriter I had never heard of, named J.C. Lee. It wasn’t until after I saw the movie he wrote that I realized…I might be in the presence of greatness. The picture he gave us was so thought provoking. For all the attention Jordan Peele is getting for his overrated movies (Us, Get Out), perhaps he should see a much better film that delves into black assimilation, tokenism, sexual assault, race identity, adoption, affluence, biases and prejudices… all wrapped up in an intriguing psychological drama.

Director Julius Onah (who was born in Nigeria) working with this stellar script and stellar cast, took an interesting play and presented it well on screen. 

The story involves a teacher (Octavia Spencer, who also produced), that is a bit concerned about one of her students named Luce (Kelvin Harrison, Jr. of Monsters and Men). The class was given a writing assignment, and the angle he takes with it, worries her. Since he’s the class valedictorian, you wonder what her beef is. The movie even starts with her being subtle in her dislike of him after a powerful speech for which everyone is congratulating him.

Luce was a child soldier in war-torn Eritrea in Africa, and adopted by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. They couldn’t be more thrilled by his accomplishments at school (both academically, and on the track team). When the teacher expresses her concerns, you start to realize you’re really in for a treat. There’s nothing like smart writing to have your mind reeling and wondering which side you’re on. Now, we all know when the teacher confronts the bully’s parents, and the dad is an angry construction worker that wants to bark at the teacher, about how their kid did nothing wrong and the other kid must just be a wimp — well, that’s easy. In this film, there are no easy answers. One moment, you’re on the teacher’s side. The next scene, you side with the kid. You start to wonder if the mom is in denial. When the parents argue, you realize that is always a possibility when a teacher or coach confronts a parent about their child. You start to get more and more fascinated as you hear some of the problems the various characters have.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. might be the least known in the cast, but I hope when Oscar nominations are handed out, it’s not just Octavia and Naomi, but his name we hear on the list (as well as Lee for original screenplay). His facial expressions are terrific. It reminds me of a powerful scene he had in the disappointing film It Comes at Night (when you’re not sure if he’s making sexual advances on a woman, as they’re all stuck in a house because of creatures killing everyone). And the way he confronts the teacher, with his intelligence, and smug smile. Unlike Eddie Haskel on Leave it to Beaver, Luce is actually capable of making adults buy his BS. Or is it BS? Maybe this teacher just has it in for him.

[Note to self: Don’t reference a TV show from the ‘50s, that only people over the age of 50 will know.]

Every time a new scene between two characters came up, I was amazed. It would be great acting and interesting interactions. One parent might be baiting her spouse into an argument. A student might be trying to see what he could get away with saying to the teacher. Other scenes made you so eager to see where the story would go next.

And just when you think this is a story involving four people, there’s an estranged sister to one of the characters that shows up. There’s also an ex-girlfriend that might have some secrets and to reveal regarding Luce.

There’s a score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Annihilation) that creates a disturbing ambiance (although sometimes it’s a bit loud).

After the movie, I couldn’t stop heaping praise upon J.C. Lee (who was on his way to the Old Globe for a play he wrote that they were producing called What You Are). I told him in some ways, the movie reminded me of what another playwright, Corey Finley, wrote and directed — Thoroughbreds. He thanked me for that, but when I said, “I’m always worried when a play is turned into a movie, it will be like that awful ‘Fences’ (Denzel Washington).” 

He frowned at that comment and said, “Oh. You didn’t like that?”

When I asked him a few questions that were left unanswered in the movie, he smiled and refused to answer. And as we discussed the movie, it made me a bit frustrated to realize that he wanted to leave things open-ended. If the film had a proper conclusion and a tad less ambiguity, I would have given it five stars. It’s still brilliant as it is. It may be one of the movies I’ve discussed for the longest period of time. For 10 days, my wife and I kept throwing questions at each other about how we interpreted certain scenes. I even started texting SDiFF artistic director/CEO Tonya Mantooth about the movie, and we went back and forth about it.

Folks, go out and see this indie flick. It opens locally at the Angelika Film Center and deserves an audience. It’s a shame that it will probably make less in its run, than the idiotic Hobbs & Shaw made in one day.

4 ½ stars out of 5.

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