‘LUV’ is one of the strangest but most interesting coming-of-age films I’ve seen. Above all else, the movie excels in character development, which is probably why director Sheldon Candis was able to secure an A-List cast. The film is set in Baltimore, and will undoubtedly prompt comparisons to the hit HBO series ‘The Wire’, particularly in story similarities. Yet the characters in ‘LUV’ come first before anything else, even the plot.
We meet Woody (Michael Rainey, Jr.), a bright young boy who has lived with his grandmother in Baltimore since his mother checked into an out-of-state drug rehab clinic. Woody’s uncle Vincent (Common) moves in after being released from prison, where he served eight years of a twenty-year sentence. Woody has been without a father all of his life. We see him searching for a parental figure, as he instantly takes a liking to Vincent, who drives a Mercedes and dresses in a slick suit.
While trying to impress his uncle and get his affection, Woody boasts about how popular and cool he is at school. When Vincent drives Woody to school and discovers that the boy lacks the confidence to even talk to a girl, Vincent decides that life lessons are far more important than reading, writing and arithmetic. He takes his nephew with him for the day to teach him how to be a man and how to navigate the real world.
The day starts out charmingly enough, with Vincent teaching Woody how to talk to women, dress for success, demand respect and always maintain the appearance of confidence despite any underlying fear. Vincent instructs him how to shake hands, look people in the eye, speak loudly and clearly, and never take no for an answer. Common pulls this off with outstanding wit and charm. He’s very likable.
Woody accompanies his uncle to meet a friend from his old days of crime. They go to a bank, where Vincent is told he can’t get a new business loan (he wants to convert an abandoned waterfront warehouse into a crab restaurant) until he pays off an outstanding debt of $22,000. In both scenes, we see Vincent trying to stay clean and avoid returning to his past gang life. But with his options limited, he decides to resort to his past life one last time.
This is where the story and characters get a bit unrealistic. Vincent calls his old crime boss Mr. Fish (Dennis Haysbert) and his partner/brother Arthur (Danny Glover) to ask for an opportunity to earn the $22,000. Mr. Fish tells Vincent he needs to do a drug run in order to get the money. Vincent and Woody make the drug run only to find out that Mr. Fish has set them up and ordered Vincent’s murder, because he thinks that Vincent is either an informer or a snitch.
Woody’s lessons on how to be a man suddenly include learning how to drive, shoot a gun and make drug deals. This all leads to a climactic scene at Mr. Fish’s house where a big gunfight ensues. In the last 30 minutes, the story becomes even more outlandish, to the point of being laughable. When Woody drives a getaway car even though he can barely see over the wheel, pretends to be a crime lord and shoots guns, plausibility leaves the room and never returns.
However, even as the storyline loses credibility, the film’s character development keeps it grounded. Despite the bizarre last half hour, I still recommend that you give ‘LUV’ a chance. The performances by Common and Rainey are incredible. They both show great range as they evolve from kind and likeable people into hard-edged gangsters. As always, Dutton, Glover and Haysbert are phenomenal in their supporting roles. It’s great to see Glover and Haysbert play bad guys. Candis has a great eye for filmmaking. The movie is skillfully shot and offers a fresh, clean take on the usual inner city crime genre.