PARK CITY, UTAH: Here’s a name you’re gonna want to remember: Steven Caple Jr. His first feature, The Land, premiered last night at the Sundance Film Festival, to a rapturous reception; his script attracted the attention and support of Nas (who executive-produced, in addition to producing its soundtrack) and Erykah Badu (who co-stars and contributes to said soundtrack). In its broad strokes, it sounds like something you’ve seen before – a quartet of friends resort to slinging molly, hoping for a path out of their rotting neighborhood – but it’s a lived-in, breathed-in movie, filled with atmospheric details, unexpected characters, and a striking authenticity.
The title is shorthand for its setting of Cleveland, Ohio, seen here as a decaying urban rot. Out of its abandoned storefronts and shuttered manufacturing plants emerge four friends on skateboards, often in slow motion, the filmmaker shooting them with the majesty they imagine for themselves. Caple’s camera prowls through the city’s hip-hop/skater subculture, where the four friends ditch school to practice their tricks, hoping to land sponsorship for tournaments and, eventually, make their way out of these streets. But while they’re waiting for that ship to come in, they steal cars – and one fateful night, in a bag in a trunk, they find an unholy amount of MDMA. And they decide to make some money selling it, in spite of a junkie associate’s warning: “This is Momma’s shit.”
We’ve seen a lot of drug kingpins – or, in this case, queen-pins – in movies, but none quite like Momma; the way the character is written and played (by the remarkable Linda Emond) is the first tip-off to Caple’s subversive interests. She is a) white, b) a woman, and c) a white woman whose front is a stand at a farmer’s market. And yet she’s absolutely chilling – perhaps because she’s not hung up on macho nonsense, but merely intent on getting her money and her product right. She carries the authority of someone who no longer has anything to prove. “I was like, How can I make her different?” Caple explained at the post-screening Q&A. “Y’know, we’ve seen characters that were like, chitty-chitty-bang-bang shootin’ up everything; how can I make a woman who just with her words, or without words, can shake boys up a little more, and have this kind of control?”
Similarly complicated is Badu’s character, less noteworthy for what she is (a neighborhood prostitute and junkie) than who she is; the musician brings an earthy eccentricity to the character, dropping in occasionally to sprinkle a little weirdo dust, until a melancholy scene late in the picture with her heretofore unseen daughter. It happens, and it passes; she’s got her own whole story happening on the edge of the frame. “We talked about this several times,” Caple said, “about how if she’s gonna play this prostitute, she has to be well-balanced, y’know. She has to have that thing, you know, I’m not being pimped, it’s like a partnership.”
Across the stage, Badu (resplendent in her shades and tall hat) piped up: “I was wondering, am I a fake fishnet ho, or a houseshoe ho?”
Other supporting roles are similarly rich; Michael Kenneth Williams appears in just three short scenes, as one of the fathers, but with his exhausted gait, his factory uniform, and his hacking cough, he tells an entire cautionary tale. Kim Coates (from Sons of Anarchy) is similarly inspired as “Uncle Steve,” the diner owner and sort-of provider for Cisco (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the brightest of the quartet at the center of the story, and the most stubborn. His transition from shrugging hustler to desperate criminal is subtle yet powerful; by the time the gravity of his situation hits him, it’s too late.
To his credit, Caple has the patience to go there with him, all the way. The Land is plenty stylish, but it’s not all empty flash; the closing sections are agonizingly unhurried, as the crew’s questionable decisions not only catch up with them, but prompt further expeditions past the point of no return. As a screenwriter, Caple can’t always overcome the familiarity of the material; the inevitable friction between the four friends, for example, is particularly pat, powered through with a get-it-over-with feel. But the movie’s fumbles are minor, and its virtues copious. This is a forceful, scrappy, energetic new film from an exciting new talent – and that, after all, is what this week in the mountains is ultimately all about.
The Land screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival