Film Review: The Land

A heartfelt, if familiar, portrait of four teenage friends mired in both poverty and criminal trouble.
Specialty Releases

The area referred to by the title of The Land is Cleveland, Ohio, which writer-director Steven Caple, Jr. depicts as a dingy locale of streetwise kids and rampant drug-related crime. It’s a miserable milieu of broken homes and lives, and thus serves as a fitting fringe-of-society environment for this compelling story about four teens whose desire to escape their circumstances leads them to partake in illicit pastimes that, before long, wind up causing them far more harm than good.

Of these best friends, who are bonded by their shared love of skateboarding and their equally fractured, low-income home lives, the leader is Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), who resides with his deceased mom’s boyfriend, shabby diner owner Uncle Steve (Kim Coates). Alongside loudmouthed, dreadlocked Junior (Moises Arias of “Hannah Montana”), cocky Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron) and straitlaced Boobie (Ezri Walker), Cisco struggles through school while making cash by robbing cars with his mates and then selling them to the local chop shop. Given that their grand-theft-auto methods involve assaulting drivers, this is clearly an ill-advised course of action, though it turns truly grave when they jack a drug dealer’s vehicle and Cisco, sensing an opportunity, snatches the victim’s stash of MDMA.

Peddling drugs soon nets them the sorts of items (new clothes, hats, etc.) that are too pricey for their parents—including Junior’s single mom Evelyn (Natalie Martinez) and Boobie’s hard-working father Pops (Michael K. Williams). It also, inevitably, makes them the target of the area’s local narcotics queen Mama (Linda Emond), an unnervingly calm and composed heavy who runs a local farmer’s market stand, and who has only minimal control over the biker-gang thug she employs to find her stolen loot. What ensues is suspense-laced drama of a familiar sort, as Cisco and company’s excitement over their newfound affluence—and the sort of clout it affords, as epitomized by time spent at a client’s swanky downtown apartment—gives way to mounting dread over the danger in which they’ve put both themselves, and their loved ones.

If Caple’s overarching narrative hits one been-there, done-that beat after another, his moment-to-moment plotting is imbued with a compelling sense of the desperation, fury and dreams driving his protagonists to put themselves in harm’s way. That authenticity extends to his evocation of Cleveland’s more downtrodden areas as an environment where need—for food, for safety, for parental guidance—is ever-present, and criminal enterprises serve as a tantalizing option for many disadvantaged kids. The Land rarely breaks new ground, often to the point of coming across as just a collection of street-drama clichés. And as with singer Erykah Badu (here playing a junkie prostitute, along with contributing to the soundtrack), it squanders Michael K. Williams in a perfunctory role that fails to take advantage of his imposing presence. Nonetheless, its well-composed aesthetics are hauntingly stylish, its lead characterizations are nuanced and its performances are heartfelt. And in both its finale and coda, it casts a sobering, unsentimental light on the sacrifices required to survive, and the daunting odds of doing so in an urban environment where internal and external obstacles abound.

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