In a broad sense, urban dramas about African-American youths tend to all look the same. The great ones, your Boyz n the Hoods and Menace II Society's, stand apart due to the little details, the personal aspects that can't be found anywhere else. Steven Caple's The Land, which I kept missing at Sundance earlier this year, is one of those movies that sets itself away from the pack with little lived-in qualities; details that can only from having experienced them first-hand.
The authenticity Caple brings to the story is perhaps one reason he was able to gain the attention of producer Nas and co-star Erykah Badu, both of whom contribute to the soundtrack. Music by either artist is reason enough to put The Land on your radar, but it's far from the only one. Caple depicts a rundown, decrepit vision of Cleveland, OH (Is there any other??); where its demolished homes and empty businesses mirror the hopelessness of those stuck there. Out of that decay four friends try to build a better life for themselves. Skateboarders and petty criminals Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron), and Boobie (Ezri Walker) do whatever they have to do to survive "The Land", even if it means taking risks purely out of desperation.
In a place like "The Land", any desperate act is like an invitation for something far worse than just being broke. The gang come across a stash of drugs while boosting a car, and despite learning that it belongs to local kingpin Momma (terrific character actress Linda Emond), they sell it for themselves. This doesn't make Momma happy, and that's when things start getting dangerous. But for a while life is good, and Caple gives Cisco and his friends a taste of real hope for the first time. Each of them come from some kind of troubling family predicament, and relish any opportunity to break from their societal imprisonment. Caple's camera swoons during these moments, as well, when the friends are gliding through town without a care in the world. Those moments of absolute freedom give The Land considerable heart, enough to break through much of the gloom.
Unwilling to turn his characters into easily categorized stereotypes, Caple takes his characters in directions that make us rethink our preconceived notions. The best example is Momma, a white lady who appears to be a common, even genial, neighborhood resident. But underneath the calm demeanor is the icy confidence of a gangster who has seen it all. No matter who she's in the room with, even when talking down a much larger associate, it's never any doubt who is in control. If anyone emerges from this as a breakout star it would be Lendeborg, who brings nuance to Cisco's evolution from small-time thief to enterprising drug lord. Also breathing life into richly-defined characters are Arias (who many will remember as the quirky scene-stealer from The Kings of Summer), Badu who gives a soulful performance as a local prostitute, and Michael K. Williams as Pops, a struggling father who has taken every hard shot life has dished out yet still tries to what's best.
While kept at bay for most of the film, less intricate elements do creep in that Caple clearly isn't as invested in. Internal conflict eventually splinters the friends, sending them on different life paths. And if you guessed that a death would bring them back together, then you'd be right. Capel keeps the story going in measured doses, and you come to wish he could speed through the overly familiar conclusion. But that would be a disservice overall, as the deliberate pacing allows Capel room to maneuver, and for his characters to breathe. The Land reminds me of another Sundance drama from a few years ago, the little-seen Imperial Dreams starring John Boyega, Both films represent a reinvention of the "hood drama", leaving behind the guns and the bravado and the drive-bys in favor of a message of hope.