On the horses is where I spent most of my days.
If you’re a troubled human being, the movies claim you’re just one bond with a horse away from self-actualization. To Concrete Cowboy’s credit, it does lean graciously on two components of a script that shouldn’t be easily dismissed: its local, true-to-life Philadelphia flavor and Idris Elba dressed as a cowboy.
Directed and co-written by Ricky Staub, the film follows a recently expelled, angsty teen named Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) who is forced to live with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) in Philadelphia. In addition to their familial rift, Cole also has to reckon with the “concrete cowboy” lifestyle of Fletcher Street, the film’s true inspiration for this otherwise by-the-numbers story. Despite being in an urban neighborhood, many of the residents (played by actual people from this area) own and ride horses off the street. By day, they clean stables and sell horseback lessons. By night, they trade stories by their makeshift campfire about the legacy of the Black cowboy and the secrets behind what really breaks a horse.
If that were the main thrust of Concrete Cowboy’s intriguing setting, this would certainly have the potential to be a more memorable commentary about gentrification and the ongoing erasure of African American history in these forgotten corners of the country. Instead, the film constantly swerves into a far less interesting (and utterly formulaic) coming-of-age plot involving Cole’s tough adjustment to his new surroundings. It’s the same film you’ve seen dozens of times over, and it offers almost nothing new aside from a confident, well-realized performance from McLaughlin, best known as Lucas from the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. Here, he’s quite dour and self-assured, but also vulnerable and warm to possibilities over time. A more creative script would’ve helped turn this from a transition role into a breakout film debut.
The same mostly goes for Elba, who always makes the most he possibly can out of any role he chooses. In the early goings of Concrete Cowboy, his mystique lies in his complete failure to properly provide for his son, who he forces to sleep on a couch across from a live horse and only keep beer and cola in the fridge. Rather than address or reconcile this clear abuse, he gets on his fittingly high horse when Cole starts hanging around an old friend and drug dealer named Smush (Emmy Award winner Jharrel Jerome). The film has a strong sense of morality when it comes to keeping kids off the streets by giving them a job with horses, but these life lessons don’t quite fit when combined with the constant neglect Cole experiences throughout the film, which is what really drives him to a reliance on Smush in the first place.
Concrete Cowboy was clearly made to bring rightful awareness to fading way of life in Philadelphia before it’s forgotten forever, similar to the superior, but similarly-minded 2019 film The Last Black Man in San Francisco. The film is probably at its strongest when it manages to slow down its mechanical plot and let Cole and Harp have a few minutes to simply hash out their baggage, resulting in a surprise turn that contextualizes a lot of the story’s more jarring moments up until this point. But Concrete Cowboy never goes quite deep enough into any of its branching narratives. Lessons about hard work dovetail into lessons about avoiding the drug lifestyle and then into an oddly-timed romance, and so on. By the time the plot contrives its way into a crackdown against the neighborhood, it becomes more reminiscent of a small-town 90s movie where the community has to band together, rather than the more nuanced, fatalistic time-and-place drama it truly wants to be.
Despite some heartwarming vignettes and occasionally innovative sequences that drive the story forward — specifically a night out in Philly that feels ripped from a different movie entirely — Concrete Cowboy suffers from a script that was edited for time instead of focus. To be fair, though, Idris Elba definitely dresses up like a cowboy.
Concrete Cowboy streams exclusively on Netflix starting April 2.
Photo credit: Netflix