It's a familiar movie trope, one we've seen as recently as in Dope and as far back as in 1991's Boyz in The Hood: a group of dreaming teens, driven by the monotony of their inner-city lives and just as well trapped by them, search for a means to break out and, either intentionally or as an unforeseen consequence of that search, do so at risky (or all) costs. But there are three things that will stop you from eye-rolling and exhaling at the Nas-produced The Land.
THE SCORE & SKATE
Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Moises Arias, Ezri Walker and Rafi Gavron play Cisco, Junior, Patty Cake and Boobie, respectively: four Cleveland, Ohio high school students and best friends who spend the better part of the film scheming to skateboard. They just wanna spend their days doing tricks, flips and riding ramps, but they don't want to work, getting sponsored ain't easy and registration fees for competitions are steep. Per film's requirement for conflict and climax, as they grow more desperate, they dig themselves deeper. But the quiet moments, the ones when they are simply a gang on wheels, are shot beautifully. When we first see them traverse the city streets as a foursome, it's set in slow-motion to the twinkly and calming instrumental of "Man on the Moon (The Anthem)" from Cleveland's own Kid Cudi.
Later, they mark their territory on new grounds in abandoned warehouses and empty school hallways. The camera flips just when Junior does to do a handstand on a drifting board, making for one mindf—k of dimensions. And when the crew douses their boards with pigmented powder, their tricks become, well, magic tricks, obscured by exploding colored smoke. They're bracing, flinching and perfecting landings at decelerated speeds for dramatic effect and our enjoyment. And in a final scene, when one character skates off as the sun sets, it's backed by J. Cole's "Intro" from 2014 Forest Hills Drive: "Do you wanna/ do you wanna be/ happy?...Free from pain/ Free from scars/ Free to sing/ Free from bars." It's emotional.
Though the film centers around a young cast, there are veterans of the entertainment industry that briefly appear in supporting roles with little screen time. But they do just that: support, with their nuanced actions silently affecting or administering the leads in their character development. Michael K. Williams, who we've seen command screens while developing roles into fan-favorites—as Omar Little (the Robin Hood for the hood) on "The Wire" and as Chalky White (the regal Prohibition Era bootlegger) on "Boardwalk Empire"—plays Pops, the blue-collar father of Boobie. Every time he appears, even with the few words he utters, it gives reason to why Boobie ended up being the boy with the biggest moral compass. Erykah Badu plays Turquoise, a drug-addicted prostitute who frequents the diner that Cisco's uncle owns. She's a character that will provide equal parts discomfort and comic relief, and you'll alternate between wincing at her antics and accepting them. With very little dialogue, Badu is still flawless in making us cautious of her. Machine Gun Kelly, another Cleveland native, stars briefly as Slick, a local convenient store cashier with a witty, deadpan humor. And again, although MGK doesn't deliver more than a few one-liners, he's successful in convincing us that he's a hood boy with a heart of gold and, in one notable scene, even inspires Cisco in a selfless pay-it-forward act.
THE BREAKOUT PERFORMANCE
Once you recognize that this is Lendeborg's (and Walker's) first film role—while Gavron and Arias boast nearly 10 years each in the industry—it's really a sight to watch him carry the lead despite being both the more reserved of the crew (Arias plays the attention-seeking, scene-stealing clown) and, at times, the least likable. As the driving force behind much of the boys' bad decision-making, he can be stubborn. He acts impulsively, emotionally, and sometimes violently. But Lendeborg is effective in portraying that he does not do this without guilt, that he acts—sometimes with no words, and just anger and unease in his eyes—because desperate times call for desperate measures, and because he truly feels these are his only options and his last resort to make it out of The 'Land.
'The Land,' written and directed by Steven Caple Jr., opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 29 with a national rollout to follow. It will be available on VOD/iTunes on August 4.
REVOLT hit The Land premiere's red carpet to talk to producer Nas and director Steven Caple, Jr.