Sheldon Candis’ saga of expedited manhood is an imperfectly spun tale, but its two massive, impressive lead performances will catch eyes. LUV is the director’s semi-autobiographical stab at recounting his boyhood relationship with his uncle, whose willingness to share life lessons overshadowed his criminal reputation.
Playing hooky from school at the behest of smooth-talking Vincent (Common), 11-year-old Woody (powerful newcomer Michael Rainey Jr.) kicks around Charm City with his mother’s brother, a former drug-game general fresh off an eight-year bid and anxious to go straight. After buying Woody a beautiful custom suit, a symbol that becomes more than sartorial as the movie plays out, Vincent’s application for a loan to finance a restaurant along Canton Harbor is shot down. It forces him to take his nephew on an unexpected tour of the life he used to live, entering into a treacherous two-step with Fish (Dennis Haysbert) and Arthur (Danny Glover), a pair of brothers who used to employ Vincent — and had more than a little to do with his incarceration.
Candis navigates his hometown of Baltimore, a town so cinematically associated with the institutional failure of David Simon’s canon, with refreshing familiarity, jumping from public landmarks to private residences with a native confidence. But it’s Vincent and Woody, whose relationship is the unflappable reference point for the film’s dissection of surrogate fatherhood, who tighten up the slack produced by the script’s more obtuse asides. It’s an airtight role for Common, allowed to flex beyond the limiting rapper-first/actor-second mold, and an auspicious beginning for young Rainey, whose fragile reactivity makes up for the film’s klutzier moments. The onscreen strokes Candis throws around are often too broad to stick, but when they do, they stay put.