Sheldon Candis's new movie, "Luv," tells the story of a young boy's relationship with his uncle through the course of a day in Baltimore. Parallels with "The Wire" are inevitable, as the television show has, for better or worse, defined "Baltimore" for the outside world. 

Dennis Haysbert

"Luv" explores similar themes, and the director also manages a large and talented ensemble (Danny Glover, Dennis Haysbert, Charles S. Dutton) coping with issues of morality and individual choice. The more striking difference is that "Luv" takes a child's perspective for this classically structured coming-of-age story set in the Baltimore crime underworld.

"Luv" begins with a young boy (a brilliant Michael Rainey Jr.) engaged in a primping routine, as his school clothes are laid out carefully on a chair.  He wields a bottle of cologne almost too big for his hands.  Then, he pulls out a black gun from a drawer, points it at the mirror, like a mini-Travis Bickle, yanks the gun to the side and pulls the trigger.  Water sprays out, and he jokes to himself "You were scared."  This sets up a delicate balance between violence and fragility for a child who is aware that violence exists, but unclear about what it actually means.  

Then we meet the boy's uncle (a debut performance by the rapper Common), a schemer who wants to open a restaurant but needs to get $22,000 over the weekend for the payment. Plans go wildly awry. Uncle Vincent is intent on teaching his nephew Woody about the world, dispensing advice in the form of pithy phrases. He doesn't buy it: "How do you expect me to learn if you don't tell me nothing?" he asks. 

In the film's most memorable scene, Uncle Vincent encourages Woody to drive his car, because "every man needs to know how to drive." He leaves Woody alone to drive the car, gleefully stalling and starting in a light drizzle, while outside his uncle takes to the phone to raise his cash as his small nephew spins alone in the parking lot. It's darkly Shakespearian, questioning what it means to be a man and reckoning with your family history.

In the Q&A below director Sheldon Candis reveals his influences, from "The Bicycle Thief" on, and learning about his own uncle from "The Wire" creator David Simon.  "Luv" hits theaters January 18th.

Maggie Lange: Do you have an affection for Baltimore?  Is this something you tried to show as a filmmaker?

Sheldon Candis: Oh definitely, I was born in Baltimore. It's a major part of my life, I have a real love and affection for Baltimore and I think it's a special place. I once heard in terms of the HBO series "The Wire" that it was a forgotten American city. I felt that wasn't true, I felt that it was a beautiful American city.

ML: Are you back there often?

SC: All my family is still there, I got back once a year.  One thing we do do, the greatest Baltimore thing, is cracking crabs.

ML: What genre is this movie?

SC: Me and my writing partner, Justin Wilson, coined this phrase "the driller" - the dramatic thriller, a movie basically that's steeped in human emotions but with undertones of a thriller and for me I always wanted to undertake the genre which is really also considered a crime drama, and infuse it with heart.  It's a genre that's usually macho and has a lot of violent acts, and I wanted to create a genuine family bond within it, hence the title "Luv." It's a love story with a boy and his uncle.

ML: Did you have an uncle like Uncle Vincent?

SC: "Luv" is a fascinating story inspired by true relations I had with an uncle.  My real life uncle is Uncle Vernon, who is in a state prison in New Jersey.  He actually read the script in prison and gave me really good notes on it.  

Something very auspicious happened in one year in the process of creating the story, before the screenplay. David Simon, one of the co-creators of "the Wire," was giving a talk and during the  Q&A portion, I said: "I'm from NW Park Heights," and he said, "We should talk after."

Director Sheldon Candis
Director Sheldon Candis

I told him my uncle was around at the time he was there, and he said: "There is a strong chance I will know him." I said, "well my uncle is Vernon Collins," and he let out a huge laugh. He wrote many articles in the Sun about him.  He said, "Your uncle was a great manipulator, he would use anything or anyone to get what he wanted." I was a young kid in the car with him, sometimes at three or four in the morning in Baltimore city, when a kid would look less suspicious. He said, "I'm going to tell you things you didn't know about your uncle. I have to tell you your uncle allegedly killed a lot of people in the city."  

I immediately called Justin, and I said this is what makes it really special. Through the course of a day, he finds out he doesn't know who he thought he was.  How would it have shaped me?  Then I began to write letters [to my uncle] and we shared information and talked about things.  He didn't deny anything, but he shared with me, but he also didn't admit anything.