Sheldon Candis' LUV is a rough coming-of-age tale that establishes Common as a rapper who could easily put his music career behind him and concentrate on acting.
It also introduces a young talent, Michael Rainey Jr., as his nephew, in a breakthrough role that theoretically could signal the start of a new career.
Not that Candis' film, which played at Sundance 2012, comes together as a cohesive work. But it features enough tasty bits, enough moments of gritty inspiration and naked emotion, that it keeps you involved, even when it is taking wrong turns.
Common plays Vincent, just out of prison and living with his mother in Baltimore. She is taking care of his nephew, Woody (Rainey), who is on his way to school on the morning the film opens. Vincent gives him a ride - then calls an audible practically at the schoolhouse door. Instead of going to school, Woody is going to accompany Vincent to see how a man handles his business. They both get far more business than either bargained for.
Vincent has big ideas: He's assembled a business plan for a crab shack in a building he plans to rehabilitate. All he needs is a small-business loan from the bank and he can get started.
But the banker with whom he meets points out a couple of potentially fatal flaws in Vincent's plan -- then notes that, in fact, his mother's house, which he's using as collateral, already has a second mortgage with a big payment due in just a couple of days. So Vincent must figure out how to find the money to meet the mortgage, so he can focus on his plans for the future.
So he begins to make a circuit of old haunts and acquaintances around Baltimore. None of them seem particularly pleased to see him, from his buddies Cofield (Charles S. Dutton) and Arthur (Danny Glover) to his old boss, Mr. Fish (Dennis Haysbert).
Gradually we learn that Vincent once was part of Fish's drug-dealing operation but that he'd bucked the boss and wound up in jail as a result. Now everyone is suspicious about the fact that he's out earlier than expected; did he turn snitch?
For his part, Vincent has ill will toward all of these supposedly old friends. He's not looking for payback - but he hasn't forgotten the slights and other demeaning behavior he suffered when he was still one of Fish's employees. Or the fact that he took the fall and a jail sentence for them.
Candis essentially takes us on a 24-hour tour of Baltimore's darkest corners, as Vincent tries to stay one step ahead of his past while securing his future. But this is really Woody's story: that of a youngster seeing the feet of clay on a beloved father figure for the first time.
Rainey captures that sense of seeing life through new eyes in a natural and unaffected way. Common capably rides an emotional see-saw as Vincent, a man who doesn't understand that he will never be able to put the past - or his own wrong choices - behind him.
Still, Candis can't seem to take this story anywhere you don't expect. When he occasionally does, it seems far-fetched or contrived - as when Woody drives a getaway car after Vincent pummels the boyfriend of his old girlfriend.
LUV finally feels like a fuse detached from its explosive. It burns and sputters - before ultimately fizzling out.
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