Kicked out of school for fighting, again, 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin of “Stranger Things”) doesn’t know what to expect when his exasperated mom drives him to Philadelphia and drops the hotheaded teen on his estranged father’s doorstep for the summer, but the last thing he expects to find in the living room is a horse. Cole can hardly remember his dad, so he has no idea the guy spends most of his time around the corner at the Fletcher Street Stables, playing modern-day cowboy. Then again, who can blame the kid: How many people realize there’s such a thing as inner-city equestrians, much less remember the role Black men have played in American horsemanship?
After “Concrete Cowboy,” they won’t soon forget it. This is one of those rare, reframe-the-conversation films, like “Paris Is Burning,” “12 O’Clock Boys” and “Rize,” that take a very specific subculture and turn it into something universal and uplifting — only this one isn’t a documentary, despite the many real-world details that bring director Ricky Staub’s exceptional father-son drama to life (among them, supporting roles for several genuine Fletcher Street cowboys and a range of North Philly locations that include the historic stables). Featuring an unforgettable performance from Idris Elba as Cole’s grizzled but caring father, Harp, this remarkable feature debut is all about giving at-risk young people a future. That the solution might come in an endangered century-old tradition far removed from most people’s radar makes it all the more impactful.
“Concrete Cowboy” isn’t the first film to examine how horsemanship endures where you least expect it, joining Brett Fallentine’s terrific Compton-set “Fire on the Hill” in exploring how this frontier passion has been swallowed by cities, where it butts up against gentrification and profit-minded developers. Still, Staub sees something special — and deeply empowering — in this community: not just the continuation of an enduring American pastime, but an inspiring group of unlikely role models invested in giving local kids an alternative to drug dealing and gangs.
Cole isn’t yet mixed up in those dead-end distractions when he lands in Philly, but the temptation is real. Harp hopes he can steer the kid straight, knowing that failure points to prison or the grave. The older man understands the stakes of running the streets, having made a few wrong turns himself early on, but he’s found purpose in riding them — above the fray, on horseback — and is willing to share that experience with Cole, if the headstrong young man will only listen.
That may sound like a movie you’ve seen a million times before, and sure enough, some of the beats are inevitably familiar: Almost immediately after arriving, Cole reconnects with his old friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who threatens to lead him astray with small-time scams and strings-attached gifts. Harp gives his son an ultimatum: “You riding with Smush, you’re not welcome here.” There are run-ins with cops, including Fletcher Street ally Leroy (Cliff “Method Man” Smith), who collects Cole in his cruiser and takes him to the horse racing track, showing him a way fellow cowboys have made good. And there are the shootings that serve as a wake-up call when they claim someone close.
There’s a wrong way to tell this kind of story, one that reduces the fate of an imperiled teen to something preordained and pedantic. Set among the dirt bike crews of West Baltimore, the relatively melodramatic recent indie “Charm City Kings” takes that route, hitting every cliché in its path, whereas Staub and co-writer/producer Dan Walser push back on formula, concentrating on making the characters relatable, fully realized human beings first. With two actors as gifted as McLaughlin and Elba involved, Staub has enormous latitude to expand the genre, trusting their performances to say what words alone don’t convey.
Harp isn’t home when Cole shows up with all his possessions stuffed into two black garbage bags. When the boy does find his father, he’s drinking with his buddies down at the stables — a ritual Elba makes us feel he’s done every night going on forever, and one he doesn’t seem particularly inclined to interrupt for this occasion. When Harp stands, he’s unsteady, lopsided like an old boxer (indeed, there’s something of Stallone’s Rocky Balboa in his body language, although this is a character the likes of which we’ve never seen), and when he addresses Cole, the ambivalence in Harp’s voice tells us he won’t be courting the kid’s affection. It’s not until he comes back into the room several hours later, smoking a cigarette as he watches Cole sleep, that we recognize his concern.
Harp has tamed plenty of tempers in his time, and he senses that smothering a boy he hasn’t seen in years isn’t the way to go. Or, as a rider named Esha (Ivannah Mercedes) tells Cole after he spends a rough night sleeping in the stables, “Horses ain’t the only thing that need breaking around here.” The trick is to let the kid think that learning to ride was his own idea. Even then, as Cole works his way up, Harp keeps his distance. Elba is very much a supporting character in “Concrete Cowboy,” though his presence looms large: the father whose approval Cole seeks, and whose absence he’s not yet ready to forgive.
Despite Harp’s warning, Cole continues to hang out with Smush, refusing to see how this friend might be a bad influence. As assembled by editor (and regular M. Night Shyamalan collaborator) Luke Ciarrocchi, “Concrete Cowboy” alternates between the two worlds: the easy money and instant rewards of petty crime versus the manure-shoveling work that awaits him at the stables. The movie doesn’t spend much time in Harp’s ratty apartment, which is just as well: It’s just about the filthiest pigsty this side of “Pink Flamingos” (Lee Daniels is a producer here, but even the dump seen in “Precious” looks glamorous by comparison). Yet there’s a wonderful scene between Cole and his father in which Harp puts on a jazz record and explains the life he wanted for his son.
Director Staub is white, telling a distinctly Black story. At a time of heightened scrutiny in matters of representation, some may question whether he can be trusted with that responsibility, although Staub (who hails from an accomplished commercial background) has already earned cred with his short film “The Cage.” That highly polished calling card centered on a Philly teen torn between playing basketball and settling a violent grudge, and whose inspirational message finds even clearer voice in this well-rounded feature.
Adapted from Greg Neri’s novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” Staub’s debut offsets the gritty vernacular with gorgeous widescreen cinematography. Working magic with shallow focus in shadowy environments, such that street lamps and other on-screen light sources glow as warmly as small suns over the characters’ shoulders, DP Minka Farthing-Kohl shoots handheld, finding rhythm in the instability.
To heighten that sense of authenticity, Staub incorporates real-world participants and situations — such as a lively neighborhood gathering where Cole can see Harp race — into the story. Some of the more memorable characters in “Concrete Cowboy” are the real deal, like Paris (Jamil Prattis), a rider with Brad Pitt-worthy charisma who didn’t let a drive-by spinal injury stop his equestrian career.
Like Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” the movie embraces its subjects as characters while taking certain liberties with the details for dramatic effect. More importantly, it treats them as peers. The film feels poetic but never patronizing, saving this one young man while enlightening a public for whom — as the film’s fictional stable owner Nessi (Lorraine Toussaint) puts it — Hollywood has whitewashed Black cowboys right out of the picture. They’ve always been there, just not in front of our eyes. “Concrete Cowboy” corrects that, respecting the tradition by reflecting more than it invents.