The Cleveland Board of Tourism surely won’t see much to like in Steven Caple Jr’s muscular feature debut “The Land,” but the writer/director finds something bleakly beautiful in the run-down schoolhouses, abandoned warehouses and the car parks where Cisco and his friends hang out and skate. With graffiti on the walls that allows past generations to leave their mark in a place that won’t afford them the opportunity to do so otherwise, it’s not difficult to see why Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), Boobie (Ezri Walker), Junior (Moises Arias) and Pattie Cake (Ravi Gavron) are comfortable living just above the law, having carved out a niche in car theft, using their skateboarding to stall drivers on the road in order to steal their Lincolns and Cadillacs to take to the chop shop since they aren’t thrilled with the alternative suggested by their high school guidance counselor, “to do something with their life” with the none-too-thrilling prospect of a career in car repair or slinging fries at McDonald’s. They’ve even worked out a pretty good scheme until one night they take a car with a duffel bag full of Molly, which could net quite the bounty for the quartet who are barely scraping by, yet none are equipped to sell. Of course, there’s also the matter of the pills’ original owner wanting them back.
Although this relatively simple set-up has driven many a crime film, there haven’t been many that are as smooth as “The Land,” which glides alongside its skateboarding hoodlums throughout the streets of Cleveland as they evade being caught by a drug lord named Momma (Linda Emond, in a truly inspired bit of casting) and to the few that actually hold them accountable since the adults in their lives are few and far between. But the idea that takes “The Land” from good to great is that the kids are ultimately moving in a loop, thinking that they’re moving up in the world once they find some success passing off the drugs at some parties and yet becoming more susceptible to a life of felonies rather than some misdemeanors in their youth they can put behind them.
Caple Jr. and cinematographer Steven Holleran do a more than effective job of making such a path seductive to the teens without being the least bit sexy to anyone else, bathing the characters in red, blue and yellow pools of light that make it feel as if they’re always staving off the shadows. The film feels quite big using such locales as Cleveland’s famed West Side Market and a summer carnival, but unless they’re alone, the boys usually come off as the smallest part of it, unseen at most places where they’re selling drugs until they approach someone about a sale, which is perhaps why they elude Momma’s bike-riding henchmen for so long.
Caple Jr. does well to surround his young leads with distinctive actors who can speak to a past, in which their characters’ brood were not old enough to participate, without saying much. As Boobie’s father, “The Wire” and “Boardwalk Empire” star Michael K. Williams needs but a few choice moments to suggest the potential mistakes he made that led to an unglamorous but proud job of a construction worker, with his son the most conflicted of the group about his illegal activities. Meanwhile, one only needs to look at Cisco’s mother, played by an ideally world-weary Erykah Badu, to understand why Cisco is so intent to keep the money rolling in. Kim Coates is also especially strong as the owner of a hot dog stand who is the closest thing Cisco has to a father.
Though it pulses with a young man’s urgency, “The Land” is surprisingly circumspect, tucking in some bitter truths about the vicious cycle that keep low-income communities oppressed into a lively story about budding criminals. It’s ambitious to be sure, but not beyond Caple Jr’s grasp and surely the start of a great career to come.