'LUV' Review: Drama Finds Beauty and Pain in Baltimore's Bleak Realities

'LUV' Review: Drama Finds Beauty and Pain in Baltimore's Bleak Realities

Baltimore, excitement over the Ravens aside, is a depressed city. Its unemployment rate has been consistently above the rest of the U.S. for years, reaching 12.6 percent in August 2010. It lingers above 9 percent today.

Aggravating the bleak situation is the fact that a vast majority of Baltimore’s kids grow up in broken homes. Just 16 percent of teens there between 15 and 17 years of age have grown up with both of their biological parents together, married since they were born.

Among all households with children, only 30 percent have married family heads (this includes second marriages, foster situations and the like).

Amidst the broken homes and high unemployment rate, Baltimore native Sheldon Candis finds an emotional coming-of-age tale. His Sundance-select LUV co-stars the rapper Common and young Michael Rainey Jr. as ex-con Vincent and his 11-year-old nephew Woody.

Woody’s grandmother has raised him alone since his mother went south to North Carolina for a hushed-up reason. When Vincent is released from prison, he quickly becomes a role model to the impressionable pre-teen.

Eight years in prison has not hardened Vincent. Instead it shocked him out of the street life. A former drug dealer, he wants something better. There are two kinds of people in this world, Vincent says, owners and renters. And he wants to be the former.

He dreams of owning an up-scale crab shack with a 1950s flair. In a bid to help his nephew become a man, Vincent takes Woody to a suit shop, gets him fitted, and together they head to the bank to secure the $150,000 loan needed to buy a property by the harbor and make the dream reality.

Predictably, a roadblock forces Vincent to return to the thug life for one final cash infusion to get on his feet. Predictability is hardly the fault of Candis and co-writer Justin Wilson. Rather their natural, profanity-laced banter and the cast’s flawless chemistry bring fresh life to the overused plot. Even as Vincent’s “final job” goes wrong, and the life lessons he wants to teach Woody become lessons in survival. The story isn’t a gritty thriller – it’s an urban drama, drawing on childhood memories of Candis and his own drug-dealing uncle in Baltimore, with additional inspiration from the Italian neo-realist film “The Bicycle Thief” from 1949. The plot points are means to an end – devices that break Woody’s heroic image of his uncle.

There’s something about the urban Baltimore that Candis presents. It’s a balance between a corroding city and one full of potential. He depicts the beauty of the Baltimore waterfront at night, the simple ritual of eating crabs off a brown paper-covered table, with a kind of love.

LUV doesn’t glamorize the drug world, either. There are no back-room deals in strip-clubs under neon lights with heavy rap beating in the background. Instead there’s a simple believability, artfully shot with hand-held (and thankfully steady) cameras and set to the music of the SigurRos and Baltimore’s Blaqstarr.

Vincent’s former boss and mentor, the drug lord Mr. Fish (Dennis Haysbert), is a clean, slick businessman. Fish’s brother Arthur (Danny Glover) is joking and friendly. But it’s only the surface. In the morning, Baltimore is full of life and potential, painted in warm colors. As the day wears on and Vincent’s prospects grow cold, the sky clouds over, the city becomes gray, and night and rain together bring the culmination of Vincent’s rapid decent back into his old life.

Common as Vincent walks a tentative line between straight-edged and straight gangster. He’s charismatic, but grows irritable as he realizes old friends no longer trust him and want him gone. Glover and Haysbert lead an outstanding supporting cast, but it’s young Michael’s performance that makes the film. Suited up with his uncle, he’s all smiles and inquisitive innocence. It doesn’t last, but that’s when Michael’s talent truly shines.

Near the end of the credits, Candis inserts Proverbs 22:6, which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” Vincent from the beginning flirts with the old life, from “buying” a new ID with tickets to a Ravens-Steelers home game to stealing flowers to give to an old fling. Hopefully Woody fares better.