This year’s L.A. Film Fest has showcased a number of coming of age stories that feature very young characters at their centers. Filmmakers are forging stories as seen from the minds of these children, making use of their innocence and unawareness to present deconstructed interpretations of the world. “LUV” is one such piece, presenting a primer on the tough streets of Baltimore, educating its audience through the experiences of its youthful, naïve protagonist. Introducing this film to the audience, director and co-writer Sheldon Candis verbalized this intention perfectly, calling it a fable for the 11-year-old main character, a story about “how he sees the world versus what’s actually there,” and what happens when he discovers that everyone is human.
Woody (Michael Rainey, Jr.) lives in suburban Baltimore with his grandmother (Lonette McKee) and Uncle Vincent (Common), a recently released ex-con, while his mother is in rehab in North Carolina. Determined to be his own boss, now that he’s freed from prison, Vincent has big plans to open a new waterfront restaurant. To make sure everyone knows this, he drives a shiny black Mercedes and wears expensive suits. One morning, the restaurateur-hopeful decides his nephew requires more than book learning if he’s ever going to understand “what it takes to be a man.” Rather than dropping him at school, Vincent says, “I’m’a teach you real world shit,” and take him on a ride-along for the day.
The two get Woody suited up in fancy duds as well, then proceed on to the bank, where Vincent, hoping to get a loan for his upscale crab shack, is told that an unpaid mortgage requires his attention before he can take out any more money, and he’ll need $22,000 by the following Monday. Good thing he used to be a gangster – he knows exactly where to get the cash. But his former associates, Mr. Fish (Dennis Haysbert) and his brother, Arthur (Danny Glover), require a show of loyalty before they’ll fork over the cash, and ask Vincent to run a drug deal. The deal turns out to be a trap, and Vincent and Woody barely escape with their lives. Though much of the storyline is unconventionally intriguing, the results of Vincent’s sabotage are expectedly violent, hackneyed, and portrayed with unnecessary drama that diminishes much of the subtle character work done up to that point.
Of course, much of the unconventional material in the script is also marked by its extreme divergence from reality. After a few simple lessons in dealing with thugs and handling a gun, Woody’s a veritable gangster’s apprentice, taking on the drug-dealing turncoats with nary a hesitation. He’s also a competent driver, didn’t you know, cruising around downtown Baltimore in his uncle’s Benz after completing several figure eights in an abandoned parking lot. No matter that the boy can’t even see over the steering wheel and has the driver’s seat scooted up as far as it will go; he’s an ace on the highway. Perhaps most outlandishly of all, Woody seems to have an inordinately well-developed knowledge of how to outwit the police and obstruct justice, but maybe he got that from Vincent through osmosis.
The swell of famous faces known for their strong acting abilities – Charles S. Dutton and Michael Kenneth Williams also make appearances – offers this indie flick some street cred. However, a likeable performance from Common and Rainey’s true emerging talent are not to be overlooked. In a film with rather predictable plotting, the success of this fairly fearless cast nearly makes up for the clichéd depiction of cops and gangsters. Nearly. The scenes between Woody and Vincent, scenes that delve into the heart of what it means for someone “to be a man,” are sometimes saved from their trite dialogue by subtle, realistic portrayals from the two leads. Sometimes. And despite some very improbable plot developments, Candis and his writing partner, Justin Wilson, have successfully fleshed out the wide variety of characters that “LUV” boasts. The motivations are there, the characters offering consistency amidst outlandish circumstances. Even if we don’t necessarily accept that Woody is the best gangster with training wheels to ever come out of the projects, the reasoning for Vincent teaching him how to drive requires less suspension of disbelief. Though, can we get this kid a telephone book to sit on, or something?
Given the similar setting, character types, and subject matter, comparisons between “LUV” and HBO’s “The Wire” are somewhat inevitable. Candis does manage some differentiation here, mostly because of Woody’s central role. In an interview earlier this spring, Candis discussed setting the film in Baltimore, despite a certain degree of infamy after five seasons of “The Wire” depicted it as a nightmarish hellhole, terrorized by a near-constant stream of violence and drug abuse. Through “LUV,” the director hoped to present a different angle, picking up many of the same issues (and a few actors – here’s looking at you, Omar) that the show did, while also managing to be a love letter, highlighting the culture and beauty the city offers. And, indeed, Candis doesn’t hold back in his declaration of love: establishing shots of Baltimore pan across beautiful feats of architecture and the picturesque waterfront, the glass and water glimmering the early morning sunlight. However, the action is evenly divided across the line of striking façade and repellant underbelly, with well-known landmarks like the Lexington Market and attractive, well-built private homes featuring just as often as seedy back alleys and festering slums. Ultimately, the affection Candis clearly feels for this city isn’t quite enough to separate the film from the “drugs and homicide in B’more” story mold that “The Wire” has essentially copyrighted.
The film begins with a dream sequence. Woody, stripped off all clothing but his underwear, is reunited with his mother in a swamp. The lush greenery, streaming sunlight, and soft, natural noises of the imagined location stand in stark contrast with the child’s reality, and the peacefulness of the dream is not reiterated anywhere in the filthy, bustling, man-made cement jungle that he wakes up in. The distinction is so great, in fact, that when the film arrives at its unlikely end, the dream sequence takes on new import, as it may very well be the only reality Woody experiences; this becomes even more probable when Candis’ introductory comments are taken into account. After spending 90 minutes with these characters in what is purported to be a highly realistic, gritty environment, this is one disappointing conclusion. [B-]