In many ways, LUV operates like an urban companion piece to Beasts of the Southern Wild, with a motherless child gruffly reared by an ill-fated father figure, in a harsh world where predators come in all shapes. Like seven-year-old Hushpuppy, 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) longs for his mysteriously absent mom, and gets some tough replacement love from an alpha male, in this case Vincent (Common), Woody’s redemption-seeking ex-con of an uncle. The parallels of Sheldon Candis’s debut feature to Benh Zeitlin’s own go so far as to include a crab-eating scene in which Woody is forced to crack and shell his own meal, the savagery of crime-ridden Baltimore replacing the wilds of the southern Delta as metaphorical context. LUV doesn’t boast the innovation of Beasts of the Southern Wild, but in terms of innocence lost and strength gained via generational wisdom, it comes from a comparably gritty and honest place, and from its title on down, it explores an alternative form of nurturing.
The impetus for Woody’s day-long life lesson is rather abrupt, as he’s thrust into Vincent’s companionship on a whim. When Vincent drives him to school, after a breakfast at the home the two share with Vincent’s mother, Woody is caught in a lie about his flirting skills with girls, which prompts Vincent to keep driving, force Woody to skip school, and administer his own testosterone-fueled education. The first stop is a tailor, where Woody is fitted for the same sort of suit that Vincent wears as ruse and armor, the packaging for the new brand of self he’s aiming to sell after eight years in prison. Both visually and verbally, Candis doesn’t always show a sure hand in unveiling information, as setting clues and exposition offer too much aid to the viewer, but he does prove deft at supporting his themes with symbols, from a market’s oysters that promise “better than Viagra” virility to the portraits of black leaders that grace his mise-en-scène. En route to a bank where Vincent aims to secure a loan for a new restaurant (the anchor for his plan to go straight), the pair pass a run-down building’s mural of Malcolm X, and in the black banker’s office, there’s a framed, street-art-style portrait of Barack Obama. More subtle than it may sound, the juxtaposition speaks to Candis’s scan of the thin line between legit and illegitimate business, the shaky ground between different men of color in volatile areas, and the various levels of the black community in our ostensibly “post-racial” America (further muddying those waters, the film reveals that Vincent’s old boss, Fish, played by Dennis Haysbert, now deals prescription drugs, because “people don’t have health care and they’re suffering”).
LUV watches as Woody takes all of this in, and lets the audience wonder if his personal filter will allow him to soak up more good than bad. In addition to swinging by workplaces, where Woody asks the pseudo-conman Vincent why he repeatedly lies, the two find themselves in alarmingly dangerous scenarios, with Woody held at gunpoint, caught in the crosshairs of a drug deal gone awry, and, presumably, scarred for life. Vincent’s penchant for wantonly putting Woody in harm’s way make him an especially flawed antihero, whose feral ways are harder to shed than he thought, and whom Common aptly portrays with ace complexity. It’s quickly, though not vexingly, clear that Woody will be the one to muster the goodness Vincent can’t, but a late scene involving another shady deal fails to support the arc. Stepping up as a point man Vincent’s enemies won’t recognize, Woody parlays the day’s training into a precious moment of hard-talking triumph, and the scene is played for pint-sized amusement instead of earned and honest realism. It’s just one of the ways in which Candis and co-writer Justin Wilson cast their net too wide, adding implausible, precocious day-saving to glazed-over coverage of religion, slavery, and Vincent’s failed, pre-prison romance. As a film that largely works as a subdued twist on the familiar drama about crime and family, LUV needed more intimacy and focus—in other words, better nurturing of its own.