'The Land': Sundance Review

The Land Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An at-risk youth movie we’ve seen many times before in more authentic versions.

Writer-director Steven Caple Jr. puts a quartet of Cleveland teens in over their heads when they use a stolen drug stash to finance their skateboarding aspirations.

If you're going to make a movie about poor inner-city teenagers drawn by the dangerous lure of the drug trade, it's not a great idea to cast Michael Kenneth Williams unless you can withstand comparison to The Wire, on which he played supreme stickup-meister Omar. The fourth and best season of that landmark police procedural series examined the intersection between Baltimore's mean streets and its school system with matchless complexity, dark humor and pathos. Obviously, a 97-minute feature doesn't have the scope for layered character and plot development that longform TV storytelling affords. Even so, it's hard to regard The Land as anything but slick and artificial.

Debuting writer-director Steven Caple Jr. seems torn between making a frisky caper movie about a bunch of mixed-race, petty-criminal skaters in their early teens who stumble into the big time and an edgier drama about the grim toll of drug dealing. Taking its title from the street name for Cleveland, Ohio, the film is well-intentioned but dramatically unconvincing, full of clichéd situations and on-the-nose dialogue about kids getting their shot and living their dream.

It also has one of the most unpersuasive crime bosses in recent memory. A chilly white lady known as Momma (Linda Emond — why?), she runs a gourmet food stand at the local crunchy-granola market for cover, slinging strawberries when not dispensing death threats. Next to serious ice queens such as Jackie Weaver in Animal Kingdom or Jean Smart on season two of Fargo, Momma is a transparently fictional figure spun out of a writer's calculated attempt to mint an original villain.

The movie opens in social-realist mode, with Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and his buddies, Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron) and Boobie (Ezri Walker), yawning at proposed career paths in end-of-term school guidance sessions. What they want to do is hone their skateboard skills so they can head off to California, find sponsors and turn pro.

To finance their plans and help out with their struggling families, the boys go out carjacking at night, whizzing around on their boards to disorient drivers in coordinated stings. Shot with speed and energy, and lots of sneaky angles, these are some of the movie's most exciting scenes.

They sell the stolen cars to a shady local dealer for parts, keeping anything useful that they find in the vehicles. That includes a video camera, which serves no discernible plot purpose beyond allowing Caple to mix up the visuals, building dreamy music montages out of the boys' cool footage of their skater stunts. These sequences are quite striking, but they occupy the space where character definition should be.

After a close call with a targeted driver who almost gets the better of them, they find a gun in the glove compartment and a large bag of pills in the trunk, which turns out to be MDMA. Cisco convinces his more hesitant posse they should take the drugs and resell them to raise the cash they need to enter skateboarding competitions. But although the money buys them sharp new threads and sneakers, stealing Momma's Molly turns out to have consequences. "Who the f— has my pills?" she snarls, making you cringe for poor Emond, a terrific actor who deserves better.

Caple is depicting a milieu that clearly exists, but this is an ersatz version of it, populated by one-dimensional characters. The young actors are appealing, but while the four boys look physically different, in too many other ways they seem interchangeable, with the exception of Junior, whom Arias enlivens with distinctive attitude and humor.

The adult figures in their orbit are stock characters. Pops (Williams, in a nothing part) is a weary blue-collar worker whose miserable existence is hardly an incentive to stay out of crime. The pretty young mother (Natalie Martinez) and adorable kid sister (Nadia Simms) of another boy form such a sweet family unit that he's almost contractually obligated to be the story's sacrificial lamb. And Cisco lives in deafening squalor with an old family friend known as Uncle Steve (Kim Coates), a recovering addict who runs a greasy-spoon diner, where a broken crack whore named Turquoise (Erykah Badu) props up the counter.

While the pressure of offloading all that Molly risks busting up the brotherhood, a more serious threat looms as Momma starts closing in on her missing product. She also discovers a double-dealer in her ranks, figuring out a way to solve both situations to her advantage.

But there's little sense of mounting tension. Instead, the film's grit feels increasingly synthetic, its conventional (OK, corny) storytelling sapping any sense of dread. What's more, the script's morality constantly draws attention to itself. In one particularly phony scene, Cisco and his crew supply party drugs to a rich white dude with a swank pad full of babes. Improbably, the boys get to stick around long enough to prevent a date rape, just in case anyone missed the emphatic point that these are good kids at heart.

The crescendo of violence happens, as it so often does, on the Fourth of July, if only because slo-mo tragedy plays well against fireworks — even better when Badu starts doing her neo-Billie Holiday thing on the soundtrack.

Caple has put together a polished-looking package, with plenty of visual texture, especially in the many nighttime scenes. And a thicket of music modulates the mood, from punchy hip-hop to the portentous strains of Jongnic Bontemps' score. (One of the executive producers is Nas, who also worked on the music production, and Cleveland rapper Machine Gun Kelly has a small role, credited as Colson Baker.) But the story and characters lack the depth or maturity to make this pedestrian drama's sorrowful emotions feel legitimately earned.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)
Production companies: Priority Pictures, Low Spark Films
Cast: Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron, Ezri Walker, Kim Coates, Linda Emond, Natalie Martinez, Colson Baker, Erykah Badu, Michael Kenneth Williams, Melvin Gregg, Michael Ray Escamilla

Director-screenwriter: Steven Caple Jr.
Producers: Lizzie Friedman, Karen Lauder, Greg Little, Tyler Davidson, Stephen "Dr." Love
Executive producers: Charles King, Poppy Hanks, Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones, Jennifer Levine, Kevin Flanigan, Nicolaas Bertelsen

Director of photography: Steven Holleran
Production designer: Lisa Myers

Costume designer: Ciara Whaley
Music: Jongnic Bontemps

Editor: Saira Haider
Casting: J.C. Cantu

Sales: WME
Not rated, 97 minutes