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”).
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.