Review: 'Concrete Cowboy' a father and son redemption story saddled with cliches
Courtesy of Netflix
Recent films “Lean on Pete” and “The Rider” have done a solid job at recontextualizing the human and horse cinematic relationship, but in Ricky Staub’s debut feature, “Concrete Cowboy,” it forces another type of examination into the white cowboy stereotype by giving audiences a Black cowboy to root for. Based on G. Neri’s 2011 novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” Staub brings viewers into the vast and interesting world of the Fletcher Street Stables, a real organization based in Philadelphia where Black locals cherish their horses and use them as an educational (and therapeutic) tool for the community. Though the film employs a fair number of recognizable faces - Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, and Lorraine Toussaint - it’s the use of real Fletcher Street riders - notably Jamil Prattis “Paris” - that gives the film a shed of authenticity. But this engrossing community is impeded by a predictable father/son story saddled with uninteresting character arcs and hurried conclusions.
McLaughlin (“Stranger Things”) plays 15 year-old Cole who's on the brink of expulsion from his school in the Detroit suburbs. His tired mother, who has tried over and over to get Cole on the right path, sends him to live with his estranged father, Harp (Elba) in Philadelphia. As expected, the two don’t initially get along, and Harp spends the majority of his time at the urban stables until, eventually, Cole takes an interest in the art of horseback riding. But first, he must go through the obligatory “Karate Kid” training: laying sawdust, scrapping out crap, and learning the value of hardwork; and when an old friend from his childhood - Smush (Jharrel Jerome) - resurfaces, he’s faced with an ultimatum that could shape the outlook of his life.
The way “Concrete Cowboy” handles the Smush subplot comes across like an afternoon school special. Harp tells Cole he can’t ride with Smush, a known drug dealer working for horrible people, and though Jerome - who was phenomenal in “When They See Us” - brings everything he can to the role, Smush is a one dimensional, physical manifestation of bad life choices and it couldn’t be more obvious. We know the decision Cole has to make, and watching it play out according to plan is a tedious exercise that takes away from everything happening at Fletcher Street, which is facing potential shutdown and gentrification.
Elba - charismatic as ever - makes a fit leading man and his scruffy, stern attitude is the perfect dynamic between him and McLaughlin. The best scene in “Concrete Cowboy” has Cole trying to tame a horse that’s equally as rebellious as him with Harp standing right beside him. When Staub focuses on these intimate moments, the movie shines. Likewise when cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl captures breathtaking imagery of horses dashing in slow motion on the streets of Philly and showcasing the underlying social and political commentary of the city’s crumbling infrastructure. Those views - along with the raw and untapped performances of real Fletcher Street riders - creates a genuine appreciation for what Staub is trying to foster, but it's undercut by a convoluted narrative that never finds momentum.
CONCRETE COWBOY debuts on Netflix Friday, April 2nd.