“Do you even care about your future?”
That’s the type of question young men like Cisco get asked a lot, whether by parents or guidance counselors or some hybrid-surrogate of both. After watching Cisco and his friends navigate the slings and arrows of inner-city life in The Land, the answer becomes apparent: Of course they care about their future.
But caring about something is a far cry from realizing it, and teenagers like Cisco — the kind who come from broken homes, impoverished neighborhoods, and places otherwise bereft of positive role models — don’t have the first clue about how to rise above the mess they were born into. The sad truth, most often, is that they can’t.
Executive-produced by Nas and featuring Machine Gun Kelly and Erykah Badu in small roles, The Land marks writer-director Steven Caple Jr.’s feature film debut. Even without the involvement of hip-hop royalty, it would be an impressive one. Caple’s film follows a young group of friends led by the aforementioned Cisco (newcomer Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) as they attempt to carve out a future for themselves using the only tools they know. “I don’t know one person who hasn’t done something shady to get what they want,” declares Cisco, and sure enough, he and buddies Junior (Moises Arias), Patty Cake (Rafi Gavron), and Boobie (Ezri Walker) spend their nights stealing cars and flipping them for petty cash. It’s a violent, ugly business, but they treat it more like a game than anything else. When Junior nabs a smartphone off one of their victims and receives a threatening call on it the next day, he and Cisco can barely suppress their laughter.
No matter where they grow up, teenage boys tend to have an air of invincibility about them, as if all of life’s cruelties exist somewhere off in the distance, pleasantly out of focus. Cisco and his crew have witnessed drive-by shootings and drug abuse and any number of other human tragedies, but the teenage affliction has still left them without a care in the world, aside from finding enough dough to fund their entry to local skateboard competitions. They finally stumble upon a solution when they lift a car and discover a duffel bag filled with ecstasy pills in the trunk.
All of a sudden, the carefree teens become carefree drug-dealing teens, unaware that the words “carefree” and “drug-dealing” don’t often go hand in hand. The boys are eventually tracked down by local drug queen Momma (Linda Emond), a sweet-looking white woman who runs a boutique food stand at Cleveland’s West Side Market. It’s an odd choice on Caple’s part to have the story’s big, bad crime lord seem so disarmingly nice, even if she has a habit of keeping a handgun tucked under her floppy straw hat.
Momma never comes across as quite as scary as she should, but what he sacrifices in the form of a traditional villain, Caple makes up for in hammering home an important message: Crime is not limited to a certain socio-economic group or skin color. In fact, much of The Land is dedicated to exposing the human story behind inner-city crime, and the film deserves credit for exploring a diverse cross-section of humanity. Cisco is the young black man whose mother O.D.ed when he was just a kid, but Junior comes from a loving single-parent home and Patty Cake is a father himself. None of these characters seem like stereotypes — a testament to both Caple’s writing prowess and to the young actors’ talents.
More impressive than his screenplay is Caple’s knack for connecting intimate scenes with lingering wide-frame shots that lend a hefty symbolic weight to the film. Downtown Cleveland’s Terminal Tower finds its way into the background of several shots, functioning in much the same way as Gatsby’s green light. It’s the ‘so close, yet so far’ beacon of a better tomorrow, and it’s explicitly called out in a scene when the boys deliver their drugs to a fancy high-rise party downtown. The host catches Cisco staring at the Tower through his window and approaches him. “Nice view, isn’t it? It better be. I worked my ass off for it.” The subtext, which hits Cisco like a thousand tiny razors, is that no matter how much he works his ass off, some things will always be out of his reach.
It’s probably a coincidence that The Land arrives in theaters at a time when Cleveland finds itself in the national spotlight. The Cavaliers are fresh off their first championship, the Republican National Convention just wrapped up its downtown shitshow, and the city’s overall narrative seems to be trending upward.
The Land is a stark but necessary reminder of all the people that fall through the cracks of that narrative. It isn’t the gritty, realistic portrayal of life on the streets that Caple might have been going for — he’s too poetic a filmmaker for that — but it lends shape and color to a truth that too many inner-city kids know too well: It doesn’t matter if you care about the future. The future doesn’t give a shit about you.