Film

Steven Caple Jr.’s ‘The Land’ Is an Audacious Street-Life Debut

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This loose, engaging coming-of-age crime story finds offhand beauty in Cleveland’s streets and roofs, in skateboard reveries, in a squad of teens — led by Jorge Lendeborg Jr.’s Cisco and Moises Arias’s Junior — grinding their boards in abandoned warehouses, talking idly of what they’ll do when some company is dazzled enough by their skating to “sponsor” them. Of course, these boys’ habit of small-time skate-punk crime (like looting the cars they occasionally harry off the streets) pits them against a local drug lord, in this case Momma (Linda Emond), a hippie monster who runs a pleasant stall at a farmers’ market. But director Steven Caple Jr. subordinates the inevitable on-the-run plot to city textures, moody nightscapes, and no-bullshit chatter: “What can I get for a dollar?” one kid asks upon entering a diner. The answer: “You can get the fuck out of my place.”

Nas produced, and Erykah Badu does fine, unglamorous work in a small role as a prostitute. The film isn’t about flash, although Badu’s contribution to the soundtrack is a gut-punch lament over slow, sour-candy strings. Caple emphasizes the desperation that breeds street crime, and he never tries to puff his kids up into heroes. They’re just kids who feel insulted by the few prospects that seem available to them. These are presented in an opening montage of guidance-counselor visits, and the skaters can’t imagine training to be mechanics when they’re vaguely certain they’ll be stars of the half-pipe.

The violence, when it comes, is ugly and tragic, as it should be — The Land makes no promises about glory. But the hangout moments fizz with the boys’ likable chemistry, and the scenes of suspense, which pick up toward the end, are always arresting and mostly understated, scored to nervous breathing and the ambient bustle of streets at night. Caple and editor Saira Haider multiply the tension with sharp intercutting and the occasional lyrical zone-out. (The most beautiful and unsettling: Fourth of July fireworks popping in the streets on a night you fear will be shredded by gunfire.)

Some early moments press distractingly into satire, depicting the adults in these kids’ lives as comically clueless and corrupt, but there’s truth there if you take the film as subjective — this is how they see their elders. More unfortunate is some mid-movie padding: After the teens have absconded with a bag of molly, it’s not especially edifying to see the local crime lords consult about how to track them down, especially when there’s much more to those kids’ lives than the film has time to map out. Give him those mulligans, though, and Caple’s feature debut is much more than promising.

The Land

Directed by Steven Caple Jr.

IFC Films

Opens July 29, IFC Center

Available on demand

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