February 3, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Sundance Film Festival Reviews: “Luce” & “Sonja: The White Swan”


LUCE (Neon):  Julius Onah’s film was one of the most gripping and provocative of the festival, combining a tale about social and racial tensions with the suspense of a psychological thriller.  Based by director Julius Onah and JC Lee on the latter’s play (as adapted, the drama isn’t in any way stagebound), it centers on the title character, played superbly by Kelvin Harrison, Jr.  Luce spent the first 7 years of his life in the African nation of Eritrea, where he was a victim of war and, it’s implied, a child soldier.  Adopted by the very American Amy (Naomi Watts) and Peter (Tim Roth), he was moved to suburbia, where he was supported through years of therapy to make him fit in with his new life.  To all appearances, things have worked out perfectly:  Luce is an A student and a standout track star with friends and admirers of all races.  But when he writes a history paper that seems to support the idea of violence to achieve social ends, his teacher (Octavia Spencer) pulls at the thread of his public profile, revealing the possibility that Luce is much less well-adjusted–and potentially more dangerous–than he seems.  Onah and Lee don’t provide easy answers, and one’s view on whether Luce is a narrative about unfair prejudice and an innocent victim, or the origin story of a supervillain, can vary scene by scene.  That ball is juggled masterfully, marking a distinct turn for the better from Onah’s last film, the dumped-to-Netflix Cloverfield Paradox.  Harrison commands the screen throughout, and Watts, Roth and Spencer are at the top of their form.  The mood of distrust and tension is underscored by Larkin Seiple’s cinematography, the editing by Madeleine Gavin, and the score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.  Unlike so many Sundance dramas that address issues of race and class, Luce is both solidly put together and hard to definitively read.

SONJA: THE WHITE SWAN (no distrib):  At this point, Sonja Henie is a footnote to Hollywood history, and Anne Sewitsky’s The White Swan is unlikely to change that.  Henie was a Norwegian ice skating sensation, winning medals in 3 Olympics, who was a major film star for 20th Century Fox in the late 1930s and into the early 1940s.  She was a shrewd businesswoman who made a fortune from her movies and live tours (she was also rumored to have friendly ties to the Nazis), but Sewitsky’s film, written by Mette M. Bolstad and Andreas Markusson, doesn’t make her very interesting.  The White Swan follows the pattern of any number of show business biographies, where dazzling early success leads to family stress, loneliness, and eventually career and financial failure.  That model has worked for years and can again (ever heard of A Star Is Born?), but Henie, as played here by Ine Marie Wilmann, is grimly narcissistic and more importantly lacking in star quality and charisma.  She’s been given a fictional assistant (Valerie Kane) to provide a companion and counterpart to the story, but like Henie’s brother (Eldar Skar) and father (Anders Mordal), she’s mostly present to be alternately appreciated and abused.  Sewitsky does a good job of recreating Henie’s movie routines, but in other respects she struggles to produce a large-scale Hollywood story on a limited budget, and for audiences raised on big-studio versions of this kind of story, The White Swan is both visually and dramatically rather skimpy.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."