Often it's the least narratively crucial moments in a movie that steal the movie right out from under the movie's nose. (Let's assume movies have noses, if only this once.)
In "LUV," an uneven but strongly acted debut feature from co-writer and director Sheldon Candis, the rapper-turned-actor Common excels as Vincent, a former drug dealer recently out of prison, trying to go straight guided by his dream of opening a crab-shack restaurant on Baltimore's waterfront. The story follows this character as he hustles to acquire the money needed to secure a bank loan. The need for seed money puts him in contact with some old street acquaintances (Charles S. Dutton plays one friend) and various adversaries out for blood.
The best scene doesn't advance the plot. It accomplishes something better: It captures interesting behavior. With his addict mother away for an undetermined length of time, 11-year-old Woody, played by the super-talented Michael Rainey Jr., is being squired around Baltimore one eventful day by Uncle Vincent. At one point they're in the home of an underworld kingpin, whom the actor Dennis Haysbert makes a smooth criminal indeed. They're eating crabs, along with Mr. Big's duplicitous brother (Danny Glover), and it's young Woody's first time.
As the men cajole the boy, schooling him in the proper method of pounding and cracking, "LUV" delivers a good, tense scene, illustrating all we need to know about a preteen's desire to impress some dubious father figures.
The rest of "LUV" (no relation to Murray Schisgal's play, or movie) beams on and off, slipping in some effective exchanges and telling details while the larger story settles for the familiar and then the improbable.
Candis' film sticks closely to the theme of father figures, lost and found. As Vincent and Woody conduct business, the boy learns how to dress sharp, how to look someone in the eye when offering a firm handshake. Then come other lessons: how to shoot a gun, how to drive a car a few years before it's legal, how to negotiate under pressure with hopped-up, pistol-flashing drug dealers.
"LUV" may not convince with Woody's aggressively telescoped transformation. But the actors compensate. Common, clearly, relishes the chance to play a complicated, flawed man of the streets, and director Candis encourages a looseness and spontaneity in the ensemble atmosphere.
Premiering a year ago at the Sundance festival, "LUV" may take one too many shortcuts en route to its finale, and the synthesizer score by composer Nuno Malo saps the life out of the scenes it's supposed to be improving. Candis, however, has talent extending beyond his ability to attract the right actors.
'LUV' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence, language, child endangerment and some drug content)
Running time: 1:34