Heartfelt and formulaic in equal measure, “Luv” follows a young Baltimore boy through a day and night with his ex-con uncle as deals go south and retribution is exacted, leaving the lad supposedly wiser and tougher. Fairly involving while onscreen, thanks to a sterling cast that includes Charles S. Dutton, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Lonette McKee and Clark Johnson, director/co-writer Sheldon Candis’ debut quickly diminishes after the lights go up. Pic’s classy and serious handling of its material will restrict it to mostly arthouse venues.
Like so many first features from film school grads, this effort from USC alum Candis readily displays his affections for a range of filmmakers and TV series throughout, with scenes inspired by Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Solid influences all, but unlike Candis’ deep-tissue connections with his crime-plagued hometown, the bits from other movies and shows — as well as a script that’s hobbled in the final act by tendentious plotting — dilute what could have been a more personal look at Baltimore and its people.
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Missing his long-absent mom, who’s working somewhere in North Carolina, 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) lives with his grandmother Beanie (McKee) and uncle Vincent (Common), who gets the sudden idea to take the lad along with him on his daily “business” errands instead of dropping him off at school.
Right away, trouble is in the air. Vincent, out after a short prison stretch for drug dealing, is trying to go legit with a plan for a waterfront restaurant/bar. But his attempts to secure a loan through banker Harold (Johnson) are thwarted by an outstanding debt, and only if he ponies up $22,000 by the following Monday can Vincent have a chance of getting the cash.
Through a series of meetings with an old pal from the streets (Dutton), as well as his crooked relatives/mentors Mr. Fish (Haysbert, in a refreshing change as a bad guy) and Arthur (Glover), Vincent is told that rivals are targeting him for revenge. He arranges a drug deal that will pull in the needed cash; Fish, in turn, may be arranging for Vincent to be snuffed out. All this time, little Woody is by Vincent’s side, quietly absorbing what’s going on, taking mental notes, and even managing to learn how to shoot a gun, drive a car and take some chugs of his first beer.
It amounts to child abuse to put the boy through some of these episodes, one of which could have been pulled from Tarantino’s “True Romance” or “Pulp Fiction,” and another — wildly implausible — in which Woody acts like a tough guy with hardcore gangbangers.
Common’s fine performance suggests Vincent’s underlying misgivings at placing an innocent boy in dangerous situations, while turning on a dime and flashing the ruthless thug he used to be — and in many ways still is, despite his swanky threads. Rainey Jr. emerges as an impressive young actor, effectively summoning Woody’s various moods from excitement to frozen-in-his-shoes terror, and holding his own with what could have been an intimidating group of thesps. Haysbert stands out among the roster of topnotch vets, portraying a character considerably darker and more menacing than his generally heroic TV persona.
Unfortunately, the pic’s resolution to Woody’s problems, from how to survive Vincent’s Baltimore sojourn to how to get to see his mom, while superficially satisfying, rings false.
Widescreen lensing with the Red camera by Gavin Kelly is solid and never flashy, while the editing scheme features an excess of dull match-cutting for the many dialogue exchanges. Nuno Malo’s dreamlike, impressionist score proves an odd choice for this journey through the various sides of Baltimore.