Sundance 2012 Film Review: LUV
Baltimore was given an excellent TV series in the form of HBO’s The Wire, which chronicled the city’s drug scene through both the dealers and the authority’s perspecti
ves. Young director Sheldon Candis sheds light on the oft-underused metropolitan area in LUV, primarily a coming of age tale set in the criminal underbelly of Baltimore. The film boasts an outstanding cast despite some archetypical characterization. Overall, LUV is a well-acted, thrilling and emotionally engaging coming of age tale that unfortunately suffers from some sluggish sequences and mild-to-major stretches in credibility.
The film’s protagonist is mild-mannered, quiet 11 year old Woody, who lives with his grandmother because his mother is somewhere in North Carolina. After an early release from prison, Woody’s slick but friendly uncle Vincent comes home and acts as a surrogate father and male role model, despite his criminal background. One day, instead of simply dropping Woody off at school, Vincent decides to take him along to show him the real world and “what it takes to be a man.” Like many other early released criminals, he seeks to become legitimate; his goal: open a waterfront restaurant/bar. However, his bank loan is refused unless he is able to come up with $22,000 over the weekend to settle an old debt. To do so, Vincent decides to approach his old associates, including kingpin Mr. Fish and his brother Arthur. Consequently, Vincent must return to the underworld to attain the funds necessary to kick-start his dream,
and Woody must grow up in a hurry accompanying his uncle.
The real highlight of the film is the noteworthy cast’s intriguing performances that help raise the story and characters out of mediocrity. Child actor Michael Rainey Jr. is a real find as Woody. Like the Beasts of the Southern Wild amazing child actor Quvenzhané Wallis’ star-making performance, Rainey is outstanding in displaying a wide range of emotions and commanding the screen, even opposite some of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces. Rapper-actor Common has definitely matured in acting, and his performance as Vincent is another solid mini-breakthrough dramatic performance; he is a gentle giant to Woody – both the friendly uncle he can look up to and a frightening, authoritative criminal capable of alarming actions. The two leads carry the film with memorable performances and display heartwarming chemistry in their on-screen relationship.
All State spokesman Dennis Haysbert sheds his good-guy persona and excels as antagonist Mr. Fish; he ought to take on more villainous type roles. Danny Glover has a small role as Mr. Fish’s brother Arthur; his performance is reliably solid albeit underused. Charles S. Dutton and Michael K. Williams (a The Wire alum) have short roles as one of Vincent’s old friends Cotfield and a drug dealer, respectively. Meagan Good and Lonette McKee have even smaller parts as Vincent’s ex-girlfriend and Woody’s grandmother. Like the rest of the supporting cast, each may not have a lot to do, but every cast member is perfectly placed to add to the film due to their on-screen command.
Candis, who co-wrote the film with Justin Wilson, gives the story a fairly standard coming-of-age structure and makes some major missteps in terms of credibility late in the film. Woody’s transition into “adulthood” seems to ring false at times and especially so in the final act and last sequence. Consequently, the ending leaves the audience with a foul taste despite feeling so entertained and moved by most of the film. While the character arcs are pretty predictable, the actors and solid production value keep the movie entertaining and emotionally involving.
LUV is unlikely to have widespread appeal, even with a notable cast. Nonetheless, it is a fine piece of independent filmmaking that features some extraordinary performances, an intriguing musical score and quality cinematography. Although the story falls short in credibility at times, it remains a fairly compelling and emotional story thanks largely to Rainey Jr. and Common’s wonderful lead performances. Furthermore, it is surprisingly relevant despite the criminal aspect, as every adult has gone through a similarly rough coming-of-age period where they discover their role models are imperfect human beings as well. If you really enjoy gritty independent coming of age tales, check it out as a matinee (if the film finds a release near you); otherwise, this is a solid VOD/rental viewing.
LUV – 8/10