Sundance Film Festival jurors sometimes take the thought for the deed: If a film means well, they often respond as if it did well, too.
So when I read that “LUV” was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, I prepared myself for a well-intentioned but roughly assembled picture about a boy influenced by a dangerous uncle. Debut director Sheldon Candis, who wrote the script with fellow first-timer Justin Wilson, has given us something more complicated than that.
Candis based the plot loosely on his experiences as a 9-year-old in Baltimore, though his drug-dealing uncle didn’t suck him into the dangerous world of this picture. He and Wilson show us an 11-year-old finding out what it means to become a man in all the wrong ways.
Uncle Vincent (played by Common) seems at first to have a helpful interest in Woody, his sister’s son (Michael Rainey Jr.). He asks his nephew about homework, buys the boy a handsome suit, encourages him to look people in the eyes and stand tall.
But the sour odor of failure clings to Vincent, who’s fresh out of prison after serving eight years of a 20-year sentence. He rejects the humble job offered by his mother (Lonette McKee) and dreams of owning a crab restaurant on the waterfront. To get a bank loan, he’ll have to pay off a $22,000 second mortgage on his mother’s house. To do that, he’ll have to make one more drug delivery for former employer Fish (Dennis Haysbert), and we know this can’t possibly end well.
Candis surpasses many first-time filmmakers in two ways. First, he doesn’t wrap everything up neatly: We never meet the absent mom, who’s living at a drug rehab clinic – in Statesville, N.C.! – and we don’t know if she’ll come back into Woody’s life.
Second, we’re left in the same fog as Vincent, who’s never sure which people he meets are friends. Is a helpful forger (Charles S. Dutton) setting Vincent up for an execution? Are Fish and his brother (Danny Glover) planning vengeance for a supposed betrayal years ago?
We see everything through Woody’s eyes, during the turbulent day he spends with Vincent. In 24 hours, he hardens into a young man capable of quick thinking, barefaced lying and double-talk to a pusher (Anwan Glover) who thinks Vincent shot his brother. (That must have been a strange day on the set; Glover’s real brother was shot in 2007 in Washington, D.C.)
The big names in the cast add atmosphere in small doses, especially when Haysbert and Glover combine. Rainey stays low-key – Woody absorbs a lot with a wary frown but doesn’t give much away – and leaves heavier emotions to Common, who carries the film. (If he’s regularly going to be this good, he should put “Un” in front of his name.)
On one level, this is a simple cautionary tale: Maturing shouldn’t mean turning yourself into the meanest hound in a dog-eat-dog world. But Candis also seems to be indicting the American Dream that has become less and less achievable in the last decade.
Vincent says the world is made up of two kinds of people, owners and renters. He has to buy his own house, run his own business, manage others but answer to nobody. A hundred years ago, we’d have called that pioneer spirit. Fifty years ago, it would have been entrepreneurship.
Now, given his circumstances, it seems like madness, a goal attainable only by violence and crime. His behavior is unreasonable, but maybe his dream is, too.