Writer-director Steven Caple Jr.’s The Land opens with a question, posed by a school counselor to Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), a chronic truant who would rather skateboard in abandoned buildings with his buddies than sit through class: “Do you even care about your future?” While Cisco responds with only a blank stare, the irony is that, unlike a lot of high schoolers, he and his friends—Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron), and Boobie (Ezri Walker)—do care about their futures. The problem is that the career paths presented to them (welding, car repair, working in a diner) are wholly unappealing. They’d love to skate professionally, but they don’t have the money, equipment, or sponsors that would allow them to pursue this dream.
What little money they have comes primarily from late-night carjackings, which they execute with a startling ruthlessness; one boy skates in front of the car, forcing it to slow down, while another sneaks up beside the driver and smashes him in the face with a skateboard as the others hop in the car. One night, they steal a car and nearly get themselves killed by the gun-wielding driver, after which they discover a windfall in the trunk: several duffle bags full of ecstasy, ripe for the selling. And so Cisco and his buddies decide to spend their summer vacation slanging molly, a pursuit that nets them plenty of easy money, which they use to buy new shoes, hats, and skateboards, but also puts them squarely in the sights of the stash’s owner, a matronly white drug kingpin known as Momma (Linda Emond).
Caple Jr.’s screenplay follows a familiar in-too-deep trajectory (the skaters’ dreams of using the drug money to escape their situation inevitably give way to violence, desperation, and in-fighting), but he manages to place this tried-and-true formula in a social context that helps explain the boys’ actions without excusing them. These kids come from unstable homes with little structure. The adults in their lives suffer through boring jobs that force them to work long hours. If selling some MDMA to rich pricks can help them escape the cycle of poverty, who can blame them? As one of the boys remarks, “I don’t know one person who hasn’t done something shady to get ahead.”
Caple Jr. directs his urban drug tale in a Sundance-y style of dreamy social realism similar to that of Fruitvale Station. If it’s not the most novel approach, it still suits the material. Shot on the streets of Caple Jr.’s native Cleveland, The Land glistens with a lived-in urban luminosity: the buzzing neon of a diner sign, the harsh fluorescence of a convenience store, and the lustrous orange hue of streetlights reflected off wet pavement. Woozy slow-mo skateboarding shots set to leftfield hip-hop suggest the boys’ dreams, while cramped apartments, sketchy convenience stores, and the dingy diner owned by Cisco’s “uncle” (Kim Coates) establish the limits of their reality. The four primary actors inhabit these spaces with a casual camaraderie and a naturalism that’s enhanced by the fact that they performed their own skateboarding.
Caple Jr.’s social-realist tendencies, though, run up against some unconvincing genre elements, particularly the figure of Momma, a woman who, when she’s not managing a citywide narcotics ring, runs a produce stand in the local market. While Emond does her best to ground the character with a beautifully underplayed performance, Momma is, in the context of the rest of the film, an impossible role. Without giving any sense of how this woman came to such an unusual position, the character registers only as a screenwriterly contrivance, an attempt to inject some offbeat crime-thriller energy into a film that doesn’t need it. The character’s presence in the film severely disrupts the delicate balance between sensitive social realism and low-key crime drama that Caple Jr. deftly strikes throughout the rest of the film.