LUV (***)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

Never has contributing to the delinquency of a minor been so wonderfully tragic and compelling.

Sometimes Woody Watson (Michael Rainey Jr.), an 11 year-old, is a vulnerable kid, “Only one place I have is OK. Inside me where I can hide everything.” Other times he’s a little man, a baby gangsta tuff; one morning he points a squirt gun at a mirror with a scowl on his face, “What you gon’ do? I’m the man, I’ll kill you.”

Woody lives with his grandma (Lonette McKee) at her house in the Baltimore ‘burbs. His Uncle Vincent, nicknamed V (Common), has been “away” for eight years, and he’s shacking there too. V is caring and nurturing, when he’s not acting like a smooth-talking, well-dressed thug. He dreams of opening a high-class crab joint, cause local folks like to eat those indigenous crustaceans. But, dreams cost money.

Life changes for Wood the day V lets him skip school and so he can show him the ropes, “You with me today. I’m gonna teach you real work shit.” V’s trying to stay on the up and up, but devils from his past tug at him. In the middle of a drug war, a crime lord named Fish (Dennis Haysbert) and his cagey older brother Arthur (Danny Glover) scheme on V. A buddy named Caufield (Charles Dutton) tries to steer him in the right direction, but bad choices and circumstance pull him down harder than gravity.

There is something so disturbing about watching a child being initiated into a life of crime. This daring film does it with gruesome authenticity drawn from true, life experience. Sheldon Candis, director and co-writer, was just 9 years old when he rode shotgun with an older family member who was a purported drug dealer, “During those rides, he would explain to me what it takes to be a man.” But a child can’t really comprehend adulthood; they can’t fathom the consequences of their actions. They just posture. Wood drinks, shoots a gun and scams like a 40-year-old, but he is clueless. You feel for him.

Candis and Justin Wilson’s screenplay starts off almost magical, like urban ghetto fairy dust, then becomes more and more grim as the boy and his uncle descend into a merciless crime world that devours them. V is like the devil, tempting an angel, yet he still has redeeming qualities and he imparts wisdom: He confirms that Wood knows Frederick Douglass taught other slaves to read, right there in Baltimore: “When you think you can’t make it, think about your ancestors cause that’s what’s in your spirit.”

As a director, Candis has perfect instincts for urban storytelling. The gritty atmosphere he creates is so real you can taste the fresh Baltimore crabmeat, smell the streets and you flinch and duck when bullets fly. If you liked the cable series “The Wire,” this is your cup of java. There’s a very refined blend of memorable dialogue, graphic action, silent moments, pained glances and eye-catching visuals. Candis doesn’t overcook the characters or dramatic scenes; he lets them simmer. He gives the actors plenty of time to work their magic. In ways this film feels like an intelligent, artistic character study with a European sensibility.

Portuguese composer Nuno Malo has created a hypnotic score with strained strings and synthesizers. It’s not typical music for an urban tale, but the contrasts works. Some of the cinematography (Gavin Kelly) feels a bit soft almost emitting a blinding cloudy light. It’s too atmospheric when stark realism might have been a better choice.

Common has a natural swagger; it helped him become a noted rapper. In this film, the musician becomes an actor capable of emoting and conveying deep feelings. He goes head to head with veteran thespians like Danny Glover (his Arthur is impeccably nuanced), Charles Dutton (sure-footed as ever) and Dennis Haysbert (he should stop doing those insurance commercials and go back to film or theatre so people can be reminded that he is a top-notch actor). If there is a scene-stealer, it is the very endearing and natural Michael Rainey Jr. He has acting chops far beyond his years and turns in a performance that is on par with Quvenzhan√© Wallis’ in Beast of the Southern Wild. When Rainey Jr. and Common get into their screaming matches, it’s powerful stuff.

V tries to prepare Wood for the worst, “If you show weakness they gon’ get at you.”

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