The Land - the new full-length feature debut, written and directed by Steven Caple, Jr., boasts an incredible soundtrack in addition to its unflinching look into modern-day youth and the unending choices they face during the navigation of life.
With Nas onboard as an executive producer and key appearances from Erykah Badu and Cleveland-born Richard “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, The Land appears to be a breakout hit for the entire cast as well as Caple, Jr., who handles his own screenplay with surety not typically witnessed from a first-time writer/director.
Set in present-day Cleveland, a.k.a. “The Land,” the film follows four teenage boys during their last days of high school together.
Jorge Lendeborg Jr. stars as Cisco: assumed leader of the pack with barely-suppressed anger towards the world. Moises Arias joins as Junior: the jokester, sidekick to Cisco and metaphorical little brother to his crew. Rafa Gavron plays Patty Cake: a young father looking to provide for his daughter and her mother while Cleveland-born Ezri Walker rounds out the main characters as Boobie: the brightest of the crew, simultaneously looking after his father while being looked after by him.
Terrific performances from supporting members strengthen the thin-but-strong cast, which includes Sons of Anarchy star Kim Coates as Uncle Steve - recovering drug user and caretaker to Cisco - and Linda Edmond as Momma, a drug lord with ruthless business practices which betray her perpetually concerned-mother expression and platitudes of life without regrets.
What Caple, Jr. nails down firmly as a supporting cast member is the city of Cleveland itself. Shot in muted colors with unflinching realism, The Land is as much about the city as it is about the four youths doing their best to break out of it.
Cisco, Junior, Patty Cake and Boobie are seniors at a vocational school, close to graduating into trade jobs that none are excited for; skateboarding and scheming stolen cars fills their free time. When an opportunity to sell a huge quantity of stolen Molly becomes available, Cisco encourages his crew to flip the drugs for entrance fee money for local skateboarding competitions. The boys eventually barter enough of the drugs to gain entry to multiple competitions, purchase new gear, create a skate video for potential sponsors and hit their families off with supplemental income.
They also run afoul of Momma and her homicidal henchman.
A screenplay full of heart, the humor often belies the gritty realism and dark nature of the film, which displays the subculture of skateboarding with as much compassion as the world of helpless poverty. This is as close to low-to-no income you’ll see on film save for a documentary.
Another starring role in The Land is, of course, the incredible soundtrack, also curated by Nas. With tracks from Mass Appeal artists Dave East (“Bag”) and Fashawn (“Cisco’s Theme”), as well as two Nas appearances (alongside Kanye West on French Montana's “Figure It Out” and “This Bitter Land” with Badu), the songs themselves come second to their placement in the film: never breaking the film-watching experience and expertly placed within the context of the many touching scenes of friendship and growth. I was personally super stoked to hear “Aquarium” from oft-overlooked producer Nosaj Thing.
The acting and coming-of-age storytelling are natural, producing several star-turning performances in their wake. The filmmaking itself offers few scenes of hope beyond the very dreams of pro skateboarding and leaving Cleveland far behind. The kinship amongst the four leads is pure; the tension throughout the film palpable. The actual story of stolen drugs and revenge becomes secondary to the boys and their choices as a group and as individuals. You root for all four because they’re all like someone you probably know. Maybe you are one of them. But you root for them nonetheless, despite poor choices and knucklehead decisions.
I would imagine Nas became involved because the screenplay reminded him of one of his own projects: earnest, stylish and with one eye towards the improvement of future generations. Don’t let the dark themes dissuade you from seeing the hope in this film. This is meant to be raw but accurate.
I would highly recommend this film for any number of demographics: hip-hop fans, skateboarding fans, young adolescents, older-generation heads, fans of tight-budget filmmaking and fans of gritty-but-authentic storytelling. With The Get Down on tap, as well as several music projects, let’s hope Nas continues to become involved in different artistic outlets for years to come.
“The things that I would like to see in film - you’re going to see me behind that. Things that are interesting to me; things that haven’t been told yet. This story of Cleveland hasn’t really been told - I love Cleveland. I like to get involved with things that are like passion projects to me. So that’s what it all is - energy.” - Nas
By Matteo Urella, a Boston-based writer. Read more of his work at Medium.
Photo Credit: YouTube