Writer/director Sheldon Candis’ first feature is a gutsy Baltimore drama centered on 11-year-old Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.), a fatherless youth who gets a lesson in the hard-knock life from his hustler Uncle Vincent (Common).

At the outset, Woody is living with his grandmother (Lonette McKee), longing to reunite with his estranged mother (Tracey Heggins), and is enamored with his Uncle Vincent, who’s just been released from an eight-year stretch in prison. Woody happily accepts a ride to school from Vincent one morning, only to be taken for an even wilder ride when his uncle decides Woody should instead spend the day on the streets with him. Vincent is trying to go straight by opening a legit business, a crab shack on the bay. But as with any crime drama, he can’t seem to shake his shady past. In order to raise the money to open the restaurant he finds himself having to call in a favor from his old boss, the one responsible for getting him locked up in the first place. A familiar story – “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.” This sets Vincent on a path of wheeling, dealing, and ever-increasing violence with his wide-eyed nephew at his side for it all – eventually, and quite unbelievably, picking up all the lessons learned from his uncle to become a sort of pint-sized gangster himself.

The acting is solid, led by a natural performance from the adorable Rainey. Veteran actors Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, and Charles S. Dutton appear as Vincent’s old criminal cohorts, along with Michael K. Williams as a detective. Still, the cast only somewhat saves the narrative, as the predictable plot points of a crime drama bear the implausible twist of having a child at the center of it all. Watching prepubescent Woody transform, within 24 hours, from an innocent kid to someone who can conduct a drug deal with the eerie calm of a seasoned criminal is a bit much to take and dilutes the film’s emotional impact.

Further, it all seems to send a troubling message about manhood – that superficial things like how to wear a tailored suit, how to lie and manipulate to get what you want, how to shoot a gun or have one aimed at you without flinching are, or should be, part of what makes one a man. True enough, one film about a specific set of characters shouldn’t necessarily reflect on all black men; but with precious few black bodies on screen to begin with, the reality is that it often does.

In the end, LUV is an ambitious first film that dares to tread in the same territory as The Wire and tell a new story. It has some wins with technically sound visuals and a strong cast, but falls a bit short in terms of story.

LUV, which made its debut at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in the dramatic competition section, was acquired by Indomina Entertainmentafter its Sundance premiere, and opens theatrically in the USA today, January 18th2013.

It was also picked up by BET for its eventual TV debut.