There’s nothing so dismal as a movie with a child at its center who’s nothing more than a symbol of innocence, a sacrificial lamb offered up by a filmmaker to show how terrible the world is. Almost miraculously, Sheldon Candis’ coming-of-age drama – or is it a crime drama? – “LUV” sidesteps that easy trap. The picture is notable more for its mood and tone than for the specifics of its plot development. Not that bad stuff doesn’t happen in “LUV”; but Candis has both affection and respect for his young protagonist – he’s written and shaped a character who comes off as a real person, not as a sandwich-board advertisement for all of society’s ills.
A young actor named Michael Rainey Jr. plays 11-year-old Woody, a boy who lives tucked beneath the protective wing of his grandmother (Lonette McKee) in Baltimore. Woody’s mother has left him for reasons that aren’t immediately specified, and he misses her deeply. His uncle, Vincent (Common), has just been released from prison after serving eight years of a 20-year sentence. “LUV” takes place over the course of a single day, in which Vincent decides – unbeknownst to the boy’s grandmother, of course – to give Woody a crash course in how the “real world” works.
The curriculum includes some things you expect and some you don’t. The former include Vincent’s run-ins with his old compatriots, some of whom clearly wish him ill. Dennis Haysburt plays the mysterious Mr. Fish, a man with elegant bearing who lives in a very nice house (with his older brother, played by Danny Glover) but who also seems to know an awful lot about what goes down on the street. Guns, drugs and betrayal all play a role in “LUV,” but they’re not necessarily all it’s about.
Vincent reconnects with his old friends only reluctantly; he has an entirely different way of life in mind. He has set out for the day dressed in a beautifully tailored suit, the kind of thing you’d wear if you were approaching a banker with a business plan, which is one of the first things on the day’s agenda: Vincent hopes to open a restaurant, an old-fashioned eatery where people can get together, eat crabs and have a great time – to do things the way “our parents used to,” as he tells the banker. Even before heading to the bank, he brings Woody to an old-school haberdasher, where the boy is outfitted in a miniature suit and tie, pocket square included. “LUV” is a movie with a strong sense of place. That haberdashery is a relic of an older, grander Baltimore, a reminder of a time when people took pleasure and pride in dressing up. Vincent seems eager to pass that sense of cultural history and pride on to his young nephew.
Vincent is a man straddling two possible lives, and in that sense “LUV” is a fairly typical criminal-tries-to-go-straight drama. (The script was written by Candis and Justin Wilson.) But even within the framework of this relatively modest film, Candis seems to be going for something more, and his actors are right in tune with him. Vincent is half street tough, half courtly gentleman, and Common shifts easily and seamlessly between the two – his soft-spoken demeanor only heightens the disparity between the man Vincent wants to be and the man he is.
And Rainey is terrific, a child actor of subtle gifts. He plays even the movie’s most difficult scenes without milking them for pathos. During the course of their day together, Vincent teaches Woody how to drive a car and how to fire a gun. But while the two are meeting with the banker, Vincent also tells Woody to keep his foot off the front of the man’s desk, hoping to instill in the boy the same decent manners his mother (and probably his grandmother) drummed into him. “LUV” is partly a story about drugs, guns and street crime, the legacies we pass on to our children despite our efforts to do otherwise. But it’s also about the things we pass on to our children with love: How to tie a necktie, hold a steering wheel, shake another person’s hand. And it’s about the hope that those things will win out in the end.