×

Sundance Film Review: ‘The Land’

Four Cleveland friends look for a way out of poverty in writer-director Steven Caple Jr.'s promising if uneven debut.

With:
Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron, Ezri Walker, Kim Coates, Linda Emond, Natalie Martinez, Erykah Badu, Michael Kenneth Williams, Colson Baker.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5164412/

A young man trying to do the right thing keeps getting pulled in all the wrong directions in “The Land,” a dispatch from Cleveland youth culture that marks a promising if uneven debut for writer-director Steven Caple Jr. Falling into the common first-feature trap of trying to do too much at once, Caple’s film follows a group of friends, select members of their families and a drug queenpin, but only newcomer Jorge Lendeborg Jr. truly captivates as the de facto lead. The involvement of hip-hop stars Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly) in a small role and Nas as exec producer of the film and soundtrack will be the main selling points for an otherwise modest picture.

Cisco (Lendeborg) feels as hopeless as many inner-city kids his age, desperate to find a way out of his dead-end home and school life. Together with friends Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron) and Boobie (Ezri Walker), he spends his free time skateboarding and filming tricks and stunts. Although they’re good kids (and racially diverse in a way the film never makes a big deal of), they’ve taken to stealing cars to sell for quick cash. When they rip off a mid-level drug dealer one night, Cisco sees an opportunity to make even more money off the Molly stashed in the dealer’s trunk.

Convincing his more cautious pals that they can use the profits to enter a major skateboarding competition and escape the ghetto, Cisco doesn’t realize he’s about to face a formidable obstacle in the form of local crime boss Momma (Linda Emond). A middle-aged white woman who hides her drug enterprise behind a legitimate food-stand business, Momma is purportedly inspired by a real person but never feels as credible as similarly unconventional villains recently essayed by Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom”), Margo Martindale (“Justified”) and Jean Smart (“Fargo”).

Popular on Variety

It’s unclear if Emond, a fine Tony-nominated actress also seen at Sundance this year in “Indignation,” simply isn’t right for the part, or if Caple fails to give the character the right material to demonstrate why she commands immediate deference and respect on the streets. Assume the latter, since a similar sketchiness and feeling of missed opportunity accompanies every major adult character in the film, from Cisco’s sleazy diner-proprietor uncle (Kim Coates), to the spaced-out prostitute (Erykah Badu) who frequents that diner, to Boobie’s hard-working father (Michael Kenneth Williams).

Williams’ presence is an especially mixed blessing — he instantly elevates his too few scenes opposite Cleveland native Walker, but also serves as a further reminder of how similar this material is to HBO’s landmark drama “The Wire,” particularly the fourth season, with its focus on kids trapped in the depressing cycle of urban poverty. Caple can’t possibly deliver the nuances of character and storytelling present in those 13 hours, but even without the lofty comparisons, “The Land” feels a few drafts away from succeeding on its own terms.

Still, there’s enough on screen, beyond Lendeborg’s confident star turn, to label Caple as a filmmaker to watch. Slick cinematography by Steven Holleran captures the skateboarding action with appropriate cool and the urban locales with the requisite grit, and Caple has a real feel for the city of Cleveland (rarely asked to play itself on film) that might have been better served by a more tightly focused story.

Sundance Film Review: 'The Land'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Next), Jan. 26, 2016. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production: A Priority Pictures presentation, in association with Macro Media and Low Spark Films. Produced by Lizzie Friedman, Karen Lauder, Greg Little, Tyler Davidson, Stephen Love, Blake Pickens. Executive producers, Charles King, Poppy Hanks, Nasir "Nas" Jones, Jennifer Levine, Kevin Flanigan, Nicolaas Bertelsen. Co-­producers, Laurence Ducceschi, Rachel Lauder, Drew Sykes.

Crew: Directed, written by Steven Caple Jr. Camera (color, HD), Steven Holleran; editor, Saira Haider; music, Jongnic Bontemps; production designer, Lisa Myers; set decorator, Teresa Strebler; costume designer, Ciara Whaley; sound, Paddy Hanlon; sound designer, Jan Bezouska; re-recording mixers, Ken S. Polk; visual effects supervisor, Gregory Jones; stunt coordinator, K.J. Phelps; associate producer, Katie Koeblitz; assistant director, Michelle Milette; casting, JC Cantu.

With: Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron, Ezri Walker, Kim Coates, Linda Emond, Natalie Martinez, Erykah Badu, Michael Kenneth Williams, Colson Baker.

More Film

  • Leaving Neverland HBO

    HBO Seeks Dismissal of Michael Jackson Estate's Suit Over 'Leaving Neverland'

    HBO urged an appeals court on Friday to throw out litigation brought by the Michael Jackson estate over the 2019 documentary “Leaving Neverland.” HBO and the Jackson estate have been locked in a legal war ever since the premium cable network agreed to run the documentary, which chronicles child sexual abuse allegations against Jackson. The [...]

  • Denzel Washington

    Film News Roundup: Denzel Washington-Rami Malek Thriller Set for Early 2021 Release

    In today’s film news roundup, a Denzel Washington-Rami Malek thriller gets a release date, “Escape Room 2” gets moved, Paramount sets a double feature, “So Cold the River” wraps and the Sonoma Film Festival unveils its lineup. RELEASE DATES Warner Bros. has set the Denzel Washington-Rami Malek police thriller “The Little Things” for a Jan. 29, [...]

  • WGA Agents Contract Tug of War

    Writers Guild Says It Helped Negotiate 100 Deals for Agent-Less Members

    The Writers Guild of America has asserted that it has assisted in negotiating more than 100 deals in recent months for members without agents. The missive from the WGA West board of directors comes nearly a year after the guild leaders ordered their 15,000 members to fire their agents if the agents had not agreed [...]

  • the jesus rolls

    Émilie Simon Contributes Flamenco/Gypsy Vibe to John Turturro's ‘The Jesus Rolls’

    For French musician Émilie Simon, the flamenco-meets-gypsy vibe writer-director John Turturro was seeking for the soundtrack to his movie “The Jesus Rolls” turned out to be in her musical and genetical DNA. “This music originally comes from where I grew up in the south of France,” says the 41-year-old electronic musician, who has released five [...]

  • My Hero Academia Heroes Rising

    'My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising' ADR Director on Adapting the Anime for a U.S. Audience

    “My Hero Academia” has officially Detroit Smashed into North American theaters. Sony Pictures Television’s Funimation released “Heroes Rising” in the U.S. on Wednesday, grossing $2.5 million on its opening day. Theaters are showing the film, a standalone entry in the popular superhero anime based on the manga, with options for either subtitles or with an [...]

  • Lost in America

    'Lost in America': Film Review

    You might feel a sense of shame watching Rotimi Rainwater’s “Lost in America,” an expansive documentary look at the issue of youth homelessness in a country where the problem seems unthinkable, and its victims are so often invisible. You are likely to ask yourself how many times you have passed by a homeless child and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content