by George Wolf
In case you’re not hip to the lingo, “The Land” is Cleveland, city of champions! Sure, that recent RNC downtown was a tire fire, but a basketball championship and a contending baseball team have brought some new found respect home to the North Coast.
Writer/director Steven Caple, Jr.’s gritty feature debut keeps the winning streak going.
Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.) is a restless Cleveland teen, skipping school and skateboarding around the inner city streets with his crew Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron) and Boobie (Ezri Walker). Stealing cars for quick cash, the boys pop one trunk to uncover a large stash of MDMA capsules, and quickly enter a more lucrative business.
There’s never a doubt that the local drug pusher (a terrific Linda Emond) will come calling, and the familiar genre trappings that follow do hamper the film’s ambitions. That Caple is able to prop them up with other stellar elements says much about both his raw talent and future potential.
His eye for atmospheric detail is sharp, as Caple contrasts intimate settings of the boys’ tough homelife with more panoramic shots of familiar Cleveland landmarks, achieving a nicely subtle reinforcement of the desire to escape.
Impressive instincts for camerawork are here as well, especially during the skateboarding sequences, but Caple has enough restraint to never become overtly showy. The urgent, pulsating soundtrack is another plus.
Even better, and the main reason The Land rises above its lack of freshness, is Caple’s obvious rapport with his cast, and the effective characterizations that follow.
Lendeborg and Arias have the look of real keepers, but all four youngsters are able to convey a desperation that resonates. Kim Coates and Michael Kenneth Williams provide veteran support while Emond channels Jacki Weaver from Animal Kingdom, stealing every scene with polite menace. In a smaller role, Cleveland native Colson Baker (aka rapper “Machine Gun Kelly”) again shows a charisma that could bring more substantial film offers.
There’s nothing in The Land we haven’t seen before, yet there is a style and a vision here that’s welcome, more than enough to brand Caple as a filmmaker full of promise.