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PARK CITY – Any dramatic depiction of the Baltimore crime scene these days starts out at a disadvantage given how high the bar was set with the multilayered exploration of that milieu in HBO’s addictive series, The Wire. First-time director Sheldon Candis to some degree dodges that comparison by making LUV first and foremost a character-driven coming-of-age story, albeit one in which drugs, violence and homicide play a major part.
That focus on character means it’s fortunate Candis was able to attract a top-flight cast. The ensemble is led by a charismatic turn from the rapper Common (AMC’s Hell on Wheels), flanked by likeable young newcomer Michael Rainey Jr. The supporting ranks are stacked with seasoned pros, including Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton and Lonette McKee, as well as The Wire alumnus Michael Kenneth Williams, this time carrying a detective’s badge.
Even if some of them are playing hackneyed gangster-film types, the strength of the actors makes it almost possible to forgive the formulaic plotting and artificially movie-ish developments. Candis and Justin Wilson’s screenplay stretches credibility thinner and thinner as the story advances.
Woody (Rainey) is a smart 11-year-old kid living with his grandmother (McKee) in suburban Baltimore and missing his absent mother, supposedly dealing with her drug habit in North Carolina. When his Uncle Vincent (Common) gets an early release from prison after serving eight years of a 20-year sentence, fatherless Woody is instantly beguiled by the super-slick new man in the house.
Driving him to school in his gleaming black Mercedes, dressed in a sharp suit, Vincent decides instead to take the boy under his wing for the day. “I’m gonna teach you real-world shit,” he says. “What it takes to be a man.” That starts innocently enough, with tips on talking to girls, dressing for success, walking in a way that commands respect, and never showing weakness. Common’s easy charm, swaggering masculinity and quicksilver mood shifts make Vincent a compelling figure.
Their long day together is punctuated by time displays starting at 8:36 AM and wrapping up well into the night. They make a stop at the Lexington Market oyster bar to pick up documents from Vincent’s associate, Cofield (Dutton). Next is the bank, where Vincent applies for a $150,000 loan to finance his plan to turn a foreclosed harborside factory into an upscale crab shack. But problems with an existing loan mean he needs to raise $22,000 by Monday.
That business scheme indicates Vincent’s intention to turn legit and stay out of the life. But the cash emergency makes it necessary to look up his old crime boss, the shifty Mr. Fish (Haysbert), located through his jovial-seeming brother, Arthur (Glover). Fish proposes a drug delivery as a mark of faith for the loan, but when it appears Vincent was set up to be killed, things spiral quickly out of control. This results in a standoff with the brothers at Arthur’s house in the woods, where Woody hears the upsetting truth about his mother.
Rainey has an appealing naturalness in front of the camera. Woody is as fidgety and prone to distraction as any preteen kid, yet his intense observation of his uncle suggests a real hunger for a male role model. But the actor is powerless to make all that the script requires of him ring true.
A few rudimentary guidelines for interacting with thugs, a half-hour driving lesson in a parking lot, a quick demonstration of how to handle a weapon, and hey presto, Grandma’s good little boy is an apprentice gangsta. Remaining fairly unruffled even in the direst of situations, he’s suddenly packing heat, driving the getaway car and negotiating with drug lords without so much as a stammer. Never mind that he can barely see over the steering wheel. The transformation is so unlikely it undermines the movie’s seriousness and robs the ending of impact.
The climactic violence is a little clumsily choreographed, but Candis generally displays solid skills, and clearly works well with actors. Haysbert is particularly good, his noble gravitas making him an interesting choice for a bad guy. The film has a crisp, clean look that’s a refreshing change from the usual gangland grittiness. And editor Jeff Wishengrad hustles the action along at a sustained pace. Nuno Malo’s brooding score steadily darkens as the danger mounts, shifting into mournful solemnity in the concluding scenes.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: FilmForward Independent, Gordon Bijelonic/Datari Turner Films, Freedom Road Entertainment, Tiderock Entertainment, Zhi Media, Cinephile Academy, Taggart Productions, Hollywood Studios International, Rival Pictures
Cast: Common, Michael Rainey Jr., Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Michael Kenneth Williams, Meagan Good, Lonette McKee, Tracey Heggins, Clark Johnson, Russell Hornsby, Sammi Rotibi
Director: Sheldon Candis
Screenwriters: Sheldon Candis, Justin Wilson
Producers: Jason Michael Berman, W. Michael Jenson, Gordon Bijelonic, Datari Turner, Joel Newton, James R. Rosenthal, Common, Derek Dudley
Executive producers: Thomas B. Fore, Michael Finley, Dwayne Robinson, Sandra R. Berman, Mark G. Mathis, Steven Saxton
Director of photography: Gavin J. Kelly
Production designer: Alex Brook Lynn
Music: Nuno Malo, Blaqstarr
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editor: Jeff Wishengrad
Sales: Cinetic, ICM, HSI Films
No rating, 95 minutes
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