2016, PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Steven Caple Jr.. Starring Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron, Ezri Walker, Kim Coates, Linda Emond, Natalie Martinez, Erykah Badu, Michael Kenneth Williams, Colson Baker.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 16, 2016
Executive-produced by hip-hop kingpin Nas, this debut feature from Caple Jr. follows a quartet of Cleveland teens as they struggle to figure out how best to escape the grinding poverty of the inner city and their equally ramshackle home lives. They spend their days ditching high school and taking to the cracked and dangerous streets, the abandoned buildings, and wherever else they can ride their skateboards, occasionally making a few bucks by jacking a car and selling it to the local chop shop. Cisco (Lendeborg Jr.), the de facto leader of this interracial crew, seems to be the only one with enough forward thinking to make it out of the projects – he has sufficient credits to graduate and maybe, somehow, move on – but pals Junior (Arias), Patty Cake (Gavron), and wild child Boobie (Walker) are dead set on finding a sponsor for their street-and-vert-shredding skills. Alas, entry into the local skate competition is $150 a head and, among the lot of them, they’ve barely got money to upgrade their battered and grimed-out decks.
Fate hands them a decidedly dangerous deal when one of the cars they boost turns out to have a massive amount of MDMA capsules hidden in the trunk. Unwisely, they take it and grudgingly begin to school themselves in the streetwise art of dealing illicit substances. I’m not giving anything away by saying that their decision leads to all kinds of trouble of the worst sort. The story, penned by Caple Jr., aims higher than usual fare of this sort by focusing almost entirely – and realistically – on the brotherly bond among these four foul-mouthed dreamers. Lendeborg Jr. pulls off a remarkably sympathetic character arc as he pushes further and further into the drug world and the lure of easy money, morphing from sweet kid with a semi-bad attitude to a haunted, hunted, wannabe gangster on the run from the pills’ true owner Momma, an aging, vegan hippie, convincingly played by Tony Award-nominated Emond.
Things go south quickly and with plenty of junkyard-dog grit once Momma’s thugs are on to Cisco and his crew. Whole sequences here border on genre cliches, but The Land is saved from being just another view of daily life in the harsh world of Cleveland’s drug-fueled ghettos by the fine, street-level cinematography of Steven Holleran, who perfectly captures the innate, visceral feeling of sheer, joyous freedom that skateboarding can bring even to lives on the lowest rung of society. A third-act sequence involving multiple characters reacting to a fresh familial disaster amidst the fireworks and booming bass of a Puerto Rican Day Parade is gripping in the extreme. The Land isn’t a perfect film, but it is a hell of a good start, and director Caple Jr. – and his young cast – are artists to keep an eye on, for sure.