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So much of director-cowriter Sheldon Candis’ LUV demonstrates a singularity of vision and maturity of craft. With the city of Baltimore as a backdrop/character in its own right—similar to its “role” in the iconic TV show The Wire, an association alluded to with the casting of Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar) as a harassing cop—the filmmaker has produced an intensely personal movie and discovered an immense young talent in Michael Rainey Jr. But Candis doesn’t trust his himself to pull it off, weighing the film down with a disconnected score that pushes an otherwise edgy story into melodrama.

With his mom out of town (permanently) and his dad out of the picture, precocious 11-year-old Woody Watson (Rainey Jr.) lives in suburban Baltimore with his Grandma Beanie (Lonette McKee). When his Uncle Vincent (Common) returns home after an eight-year stint in prison, Woody looks to him as the father figure he never had.

It’s not a bad arrangement at first: Uncle Vincent may be an ex-con, but he has a plan—to open a high-end crab shack and go straight. One morning, as Vincent drops Woody off at school, the boy can’t summon the courage to holla at a girl, despite his braggadocio moments before, so his uncle decides to pull him out of class for the day and show him how to be a man. Uncle Vincent buys Woody a tailored suit and tells him to sit up straight, to not look at his feet, to never show weakness or fear. As the day progresses, Vincent also teaches his nephew how to drive a car and how to shoot a gun.

For Vincent’s day doesn’t go as planned. With the family home already nearing foreclosure, he’s unable to secure a loan for his business venture and turns to his former associates to raise the money. But Mr. Fish (a chilling Dennis Haysbert) suspects Vincent may have cooperated with the authorities to secure early release, and Vincent quickly finds himself getting pulled back into the life he hoped to leave behind, dragging Woody with him.

Candis portrays both the man’s and the boy’s journeys with an intimate, almost first-person point-of-view, bringing the handheld camera close in on his characters. When Vincent brings Woody to an indoor market to meet an old colleague, the signage and stalls flash by in quick cuts and fast-moving images, aligning the viewer with the boy’s wide-eyed entrée into an unfamiliar adult world. Violence happens fast and often offscreen, the way one would experience it in real life—on the periphery, not head-on. And when circumstances overwhelm a character, the sound muffles, shutting out the rest of the world.

Shot lovingly to highlight his baby-boy eyelashes and supermodel cheekbones, Common seduces the audience right along with Woody and any woman who crosses his path. So it’s all the more shocking and alarming when the hip-hop artist explodes in frustration and rage. Rainey Jr. meets his co-star’s intensity with an assurance that belies his tender age. At one point, a gun is pulled on the pair, and Woody just sort of fades behind his uncle’s shoulder. It’s natural, it’s effortless, and it’s a mature choice from an innately talented child actor. He’s a fast learner, though, and later, when he applies the lessons his uncle has taught him to startling effect, it feels authentic.

Less so are some of the decisions the characters make, especially in the third act, that may help move the narrative along but don’t adhere to procedure or logic. It’s all the more disappointing that Candis doesn’t let his two leads do their work. The story is simple, but the consequences are huge, and it doesn’t need any help—certainly not from Nuno Malo’s symphonic score, which sounds like something out of a Miramax movie rather than a gritty urban drama. In silence, with just the ticking of a clock or cracking of crab legs, the film finds poignancy. The music makes it maudlin.

Director: Sheldon Candis
Writers: Sheldon Candis, Justin Wilson
Starring: Common, Michael Rainey Jr., Charles S. Dutton, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Meagan Good, Lonette McKee, Michael Kenneth Williams
Release Date: Jan. 18, 2013