For a movie flooded with genuine, gut-wrenching emotion, it’s a shame that “LUV” eventually drowns in its own tragedy. From first-time feature director Sheldon Candis, “LUV” comes from a place close to the filmmaker’s heart; he has mentioned in interviews that the story is inspired by, but not based on, his own childhood spent hanging around his drug-dealing uncle in a gang-ridden Baltimore.
For that reason, the characters in Candis’ film feel natural and realistic, transcending the stereotypes of a typical crime story. This nuanced realism is even more impressive because the film’s lead actor is rapper Common, who very well may be poised for a successful career as a leading man after years of supporting roles. Common’s portrayal of Vincent, a former gang member who was recently released from prison, adds a shocking amount of sympathy to the character — a man who is finally attempting to make an honest living for himself.
What makes Vincent’s character so profound is his relationship with Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.), his young nephew with whom he lives while Woody’s mother is in rehab. “LUV” depicts a day shared between an uncle and his nephew, which begins calmly — Vincent brings Woody to a bank as he requests a loan on a crab restaurant he hopes to start. The day eventually turns dangerous when Vincent brings Woody along on a drug deal so he can obtain the money necessary for acquiring a loan.
Clad in a business suit, Vincent’s attire denotes the businessman he aspires to be, and with Woody by his side, he looks like a father taking his son with him to work on Take Your Child to Work Day. But a suit cannot mask the shadowy lifestyle that Vincent has struggled to elude, as his good-natured intentions become more and more dangerous, threatening his own life as well as that of his young nephew. Woody is able to convey several emotions simply in the way he observes his uncle, wondering if this is the type of man he will eventually become. The chemistry between the two actors is heartbreaking, and the audience wishes the best for them.
However, this compelling relationship goes to waste as Candis cannot provide his characters with an ending they deserve. Having a tragic ending does not necessarily equate to a better or more realistic conclusion, and with “LUV,” it mostly comes off as lazy. Candis’ challenge is to have his troubled characters experience some growth, but he too easily falls into the trap of an ending based entirely on shock and tragedy. The film’s final shot is particularly goofy, not only leaving a bad taste in the viewer’s mouth but also majorly diminishing any progress the characters achieve.
Still, Candis proves himself as a filmmaker to watch, capable of developing unique relationships between his characters and bringing a realm of emotion to the worn-out crime genre. He conveys Baltimore and its citizens with quiet sadness. But it’s not enough to relish in sadness — simply put, “LUV” deserves more of what its title suggests from its director.
Jeremy Grossman is film editor. Email him at email@example.com.