Editor’s note: LUV hits limited release today, so please take a look at Allison’s LAFF review of the film, originally published on June 19, 2012.
Set on the streets of Baltimore, Maryland, writer/director Sheldon Candis’s feature debut LUV creates a world that is both beautiful and terrifying seen through the eyes of characters who also slide back and forth across that line. After watching his nephew Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) shyly look away from one of his female classmates who seemed to be showing interest in him, Woody’s uncle Vincent (Common) decides to have his eleven-year-old nephew spend the day with him instead of going to school and “learn real world shit.” Vincent is a well-dressed man who drives around town in a sleek black Mercedes and carries a nice leather briefcase from meeting to meeting. It is no surprise that Woody looks up to him and his day in the “real world” starts off like a fairy tale with his uncle buying him a custom-made suit and treating him like a business associate rather than a little kid.
As we watch Woody take to pretending to be the man Vincent has dressed him up to be, it becomes clear that Woody may not be the only one pretending. Vincent may be sharply dressed and professionally mannered, but we soon learn he is also fresh out of an eight year stint in prison. While he is trying to get a legitimate business opportunity off the ground, his past keeps catching up with him and the well-polished persona he is working so hard to uphold starts to chip away. But Vincent cannot (and should not) simply be written off as a bad man trying to con his way into a better life, he has goals (and a business plan) and the time he spent in prison seemed to truly rehabilitate him, but sometimes wanting to be better and do better is not enough to actually make it happen.
When Vincent is informed the piece of property he is looking to develop is facing potential foreclosure, he is forced to pull together some fast cash together in order to save the building and the future it represents for him. Despite working so hard to walk away from his old life, Vincent finds himself turning back to it as a quick fix to reach his greater goal. What started out as an innocent day quickly starts to unravel and we realize that Vincent may want to change the man he used to be, his former business associates have no intention of letting him do so.
Filled with brilliant performances from Common as an uncle trying desperately to escape his past to Rainey Jr. as a young boy forced to suddenly grow up to Danny Glover and Dennis Haysbert as father figures from Vincent’s past who may be the cause of his future’s undoing, LUV is centered on these character’s performances and it is nothing short of captivating to watch these actors step up to the challenge. Rainey holds his own against the adults and does an impressive job of portraying a child who essentially goes from a boy to a man in the span of one day, but there are moments that feel out of step from what preceded it.
The ideas of good/bad, past/future, reality/fantasy are impressively tackled and embodied by the talented cast, but Candis’s narrative starts to lose steam halfway through, causing these performances to lose their footing as well. The development for Woody as a shy little boy playing with a squirt gun in the safety of his bedroom to a hardened little man wielding a very real, very loaded gun seemed to turn on a dime and this sudden and stark contrast felt slightly forced.
LUV is beautifully shot and its soundtrack fills the film with memorable music, but just as Vincent starts to feel like a mouse trapped in a maze, we start to feel the same as the story spins around and around before finally reaching its explosive climax. Candis may have bitten off a bit more than he could chew with a film that attempts to take on several heavy and complicated topics, but he does so with style and a capable cast making him a filmmaker to watch even if his first feature may have hit some speed bumps along the way.
The Upside: An impressive debut filled with memorable performances, stunning visuals and a narrative that takes on some of life’s bigger questions. LUV succeeds in proving that Common can carry a film and introduces audiences to another talent to watch with Rainey Jr.
The Downside: The film seems to lose direction the second act and, while watching bonding moments like Vincent teaching Woody to drive a car or shoot a gun are important, those scenes seemed to drag rather than move the story along.
On the Side: If you want to see more of Rainey Jr., check out his debut film Un Altro Mondo, a role that required the young actor to learn to speak Italian.