The good, the dad, and the urban cowboys.
Judging by the poster, if you don’t watch every trailer for every movie, you would think that “Concrete Cowboy” is a steam punk western starring usually brilliant Idris Elba. It’s not a western, but rather a modern day feature about urban cowboys in Philadelphia, and it’s a rootin’ tootin’ show that shows us the city in a different light while mixing routine characters with original concepts. It’s an impressive directorial debut for Ricky Staub.
We first meet Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from “Stranger Things”), who is always picking fights at his school to the point of his mother (Liz Priestley) driving him from Detroit to Philly to stay with his estranged father for the summer. She is so at her wit’s end with his behavior that she packs all his clothes in garbage bags, locks the car door and leaves him alone.
When he meets his father Harp (Elba), Cole finds a horse in his house, and the wise neighbor Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint) with horse stables. At first, he rebuffs his father’s sanctuary, and rides along with the outcast Smush (Jharrel Jerome). That’s when his father kicks him out of the house until he learns to redeem himself, which he does, by taming an angry horse and cleaning up the stables, supervised by the paralyzed Paris (real-life riderJamil Prattis).
This is when he learns that his father and his friends are urban cowboys, and “Concrete Cowboys” is based on Greg Neri’s book “Ghetto Cowboy,” which fictionalizes the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club and the city’s urban African-American horse riding culture.
Of course, even with some opportunities, Cole attacks this father for not being a father to him all these years and not taking care of him during his visit. However, pops is doing what’s best for his boy. He has his reasons, similar to John Coltrane’s life, whom the boy is named after.
On the side, the supporting cast also includes Clifford “Method Man” Smith as an urban cowboy-turned cop, and another real-life rider Ivannah Mercedes as another rider Cole becomes smitten with. These subplots are not fully developed, but “Concrete Cowboys” isn’t about them. It’s about a troubled boy needing (not wanting) redemption, and how he finds himself in different and familiar territories.
McLaughlin is exceptional as that protagonist in the ways he eases into his character and balances his emotions. Credit also goes to Elba (in his best role in years) for cutting back on the estranged father cliches, Prattis and Toussaint for respectively delivering some wise dialogue, and Jerome never ceases to amaze me coming on the heels of “Moonlight” and “Selah and the Spades.”
Also produced by Elba and Lee Daniels, the movie has the nerve to overcome its cynicisms and temptations, and provides vivid characters in routine situations, but with more sense than they’re given credit for. It has its heart in the right place, and you feel bad for some of these characters, and root for them to survive any challenges they come across. Besides, how often do we get to see some bus rider gazing at the cowboys passing by? So saddle up, partner, and give this made-for-Netflix movie a ride.
Streaming on Netflix