The indie drama Luv is split right down the middle between preposterousness and truth, and between amateurishness and confidence. Writer-director Sheldon Candis and his co-writer Justin Wilson have come up with a story that’s distractingly contrived, about a recently released ex-con (played by Common) who spends a day showing his pre-teen nephew (Michael Rainey, Jr.) “how to be a man,” by letting the kid tag along while he works every angle he can think of to come up with the money he needs to open a restaurant. Criminal connections aside, Common’s character seems like a reasonable, intelligent guy, and Candis and Wilson never make it plausible that this uncle would drag his nephew along to places where there are drugs and guns. Rainey is only there to spur the plot along, and to bear witness to how a slanted economy and a culture of macho posturing have squandered the talents of bright young men. Making matters worse, Candis and Wilson sandbag their actors with dialogue that’s a mix of dull exposition and pulp clichés, and rarely natural-sounding or colorful.
On the other hand, the actors speaking that dialogue include Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles S. Dutton, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Clark Johnson. Each of them pops up for a scene or two, and they’re all absolutely spellbinding. (Candis casts them against type too, having Williams play a police detective who hassles Common, and Haysbert play a shrewd gang lord.) And Candis makes great use of his Baltimore location, shooting by the harbor and in the surrounding rural areas, as well as in the crumbling inner city, always emphasizing the contrasts between how things appear and how they are—a theme represented also by the suits Common and Rainey wear, which make them look like a businessman and his private-school-bound son. That’s how Candis and Wilson get away with the ridiculous image of a little boy brandishing weapons and getting in the faces of dangerous criminals. Luv isn’t wholly literal; it’s an exaggerated coming-of-age story, like a soft young-adult novel crossbred with The Wire. And yes, the result is as misshapen yet fascinating as that sounds.