A strong cast overcomes some of the narrative gaps as LUV gives birth to a strong new voice to watch in filmmaking.
Debut filmmaker Sheldon Candis has stepped into some pretty big shoes with his debut feature, a curious mixture of autobiography and HBO series The Wire. Drawing on his own formative years growing up in the infamous city of Baltimore as a “stoop” kid, observing but not partaking in the violence around him, his film school years found an artistic voice to express the realities of living in that environment. Candis’ Sundance debut may not hit all the right notes, but signals the arrival of someone to watch.
Woody (Michael Rainey Jr) is an 11-year-old boy waiting for the return of his missing mother. Living with his grandmother and his Uncle Vincent (Common), who has recently finished an 8 year stretch in prison, his outlook on the world is narrowed by his innocence. Haunted by his past, Vincent seeks to go legitimate with a waterfront business, but he struggles to raise the money. Spying a need to school Woody in the ways of being a man, Vincent takes the boy with him while he sorts out his affairs. However, Vincent’s past catches up with him, throwing Woody into the deep end of adulthood.
The gritty streets of Baltimore have served as the playground for a number of seriously good crime dramas over the last few decades, beginning with David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Streets. Baltimore was elevated to inhumanly grand proportions with The Wire, which might be one of LUV‘s closest contemporaries. LUV doesn’t share The Wire‘s ambitious city-spanning hyperlinks, but rather singles out a day-in-the-life portrait of a father-figure and son. It is true that the events of this particular day are far from typical, and indeed the principal character arc is a fairly rapid one even by film standards. Like a junior Training Day, Woody learns the ropes the hard way, but his transformation from innocent to determined sharpshooter is faster than Anakin Skywalker’s.
The central performances are phenomenal, especially young Rainey Jr, who impresses in his second feature role. He embodies the innocence of youth, complete with an accompanying naivety, which makes his transformation all the more heartbreaking. Rapper Common, continuing a string of strong performances off the back of TV’s Hell on Wheels, shows us his true calling on screen, not giving Woody an inch but hiding years of pain behind his character’s eyes. Charles S. Dutton and Danny Glover, as polar opposite mentors in Vincent’s life, both turn in admirable performances. Indeed, it would be tough to connect the Glover of the 1980s with the accomplished performances he has turned out recently.
Yet more than this, LUV is about not wanting to disappoint those that look up to you the most, but winding up doing so anyway. The film’s title stands for Learning Uncle Vincent, but could just as easily be Living Under Violence. In what is effectively a two-hander between father figure and son, co-writer/director Sheldon Candis has the occasional misstep and rushes the ending, but proves to be a strong new voice in cinema. Yet as we witness a man who wants to be there for Woody, but terrified of failing, Candis leaves us with a tragic and optimistic ending, one that doesn’t always reconcile with the film we’ve seen, but is fascinating to watch unfold.
LUV debuted at Sundance in January 2012, and Sundance London in April 2012. It does not currently have an Australian release date.