LUV is a woefully contrived tale of delinquent father-figures and inescapable pasts, but it succeeds as a platform for its excellent cast to exhibit their masterful acting skills.
LUV, by first-time director and co-writer Sheldon Candis, poses the question: Are today’s black, inner-city youths predestined to become corrupted by the murderous environment left to them by their felonious predecessors, or can they muster the strength to transcend the bleak future they’ve inherited and cleanse themselves of their fathers’ sins? LUV is a trite, hackneyed film with a relevant message that is saved from mediocrity by riveting performances delivered by a gifted cast.
An aggressive coming-of-age story set in the urban streets of Baltimore, LUV follows 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) as he accompanies his alpha-male, ex-convict uncle, Vincent (Common), on an eventful quest to hustle enough money to finance the opening of a crab shack. This is Vincent’s key to a straighter life. The film consists of Vincent’s increasingly dangerous attempts to procure the much-needed money, all viewed through Woody’s virgin eyes. It’s a crash course in street life that unfortunately escalates into distracting implausibility. The later scenes in the film, especially the climax, follow the blueprint laid out by similar crime-drama works like The Wire so closely that every moment and beat feels clichéd and telegraphed. The script fails to innovate or color outside the lines, and the film ends up playing like a greatest-hits of urban crime-drama scenes. Also, the overly melodramatic plot rubs up against the gritty, grounded photography of Baltimore in an unsavory way. Though the collection of scenes that comprise the movie don’t add up to anything special, there are a handful of moments that pack real tension and an emotional punch.
The script is unbalanced, and its inconsistencies are jarring. Early in the film, Vincent asks Woody if he has finished his homework and then tells his nephew that he is talented when Woody shows him some sketches he’s drawn (of his uncle, adorably.) Moments later, he yells at Woody for not flirting with a girl, and forces his nephew to skip school. Later in the film, Woody finds himself in the harrowing situation of having to fire a handgun to save his uncles life. He chokes, immobilized with overwhelming fear. Later that night, 11-year-old Woody, held at gunpoint, successfully conducts a $25,000 drug deal with a gang of thugs. It’s nearly impossible to suspend disbelief in these scenes, as the absurdity of these situations is almost comical.
The overly-derivative script’s saving grace is the ultra-talented cast, who give remarkable performances across the board despite being cast as every black criminal archetype in the book. Common plays a street Casanova; he walks like he’s won before, head held high, eyes unblinking, embodying irresistible charm and street savvy. As the sins of his dubious pre-incarceration history begin to catch up to him with deadly force, his tough-guy façade begins to crack, and Common conveys Vincent’s deterioration with nuance and finesse. Though Vincent takes some jarring, questionable turns as a character, Common does his best with the role and his performance shines.
A first-time-actor, Rainey Jr. shows impressive range for a child actor, and carries an air of genuineness that few young actors are gifted with. Dennis Haysbert plays the kingpin antagonist with gravitas and calculation, and Danny Glover, who plays his equally untrustworthy brother, complements and enhances Haysbert’s performance with the adeptness of a true movie veteran. The brothers, unlike the rest of the inner-city cast, live in an extravagant suburban house in the woods, though it’s later revealed that they had climbed to the top at the expense of their younger protégé, Vincent. Though the climax of the film is trite in its writing and staging, Haysbert, Glover, and Common’s use their sharp acting skills make what is a paint-by-numbers scene on paper truly intense and powerful on screen.
The soundtrack is comprised of somber, dreamlike drones that attempt to underline the drama of the scenes they accompany, but unfortunately end up dampening them. To his credit, Candis does dispense of the cliché of obnoxiously blaring hip-hop music in every establishing shot to tell the audience “This is a black neighborhood, this is what black people listen to.” Candis has a hard time finding solid footing in his wobbly delivery of the narrative. He does, however, show a true knack for eliciting fine performances from his actors. LUV is a woefully contrived tale of delinquent father-figures and inescapable pasts, but it succeeds as a platform for its excellent cast to exhibit their masterful acting skills.