It’s not like we haven’t seen a film like ‘Concrete Cowboy’ in the past - one where a wayward teenager, usually one who is out of his depths at school, is forced to reconnect with an estranged parent, thereby resulting in old wounds being healed and the child’s coming-of-age. Throw in some drama about the healing properties of horses, which has been around since Black Beauty and National Velvet, and you’ve got yourself the quintessentially repetitive bonding film.
The unique quality of Ricky Staub’s directorial debut is that it puts its protagonists into a new milieu. The drama here is that Cole, our juvenile delinquent, is being tamed by a stallion but in the inner-city stables of North Philadelphia. No, this isn’t a period piece and yes, that clan exists. After getting into trouble at school, Cole is dropped off (literally, abandoned) at his father’s. To his surprise, his new home happens to be in the middle of the Fletcher Street ranch, a station for Black equestrians across many generations.
Based on the novel, “Ghetto Cowboy” by Gregory Neri, the film borrows heavily from the fictional central story and the real-life stories that come from the community. The film’s strength is the heart that exists when the filmmaker explores the real stories, even if they are in the most fleeting way possible. For instance, the community believes in celebrating their day around a campfire. And we get to see many of the supporting characters open up about their struggles. Through these conversations, we get to see Cole open up to the possibility of a good and hopeful life in his new home, and also respect his father’s position. In addition to that, we open up to a new community of people through his eager eyes.
The point where the film struggles are the old-style dialogue and the subplot which involves Cole possibly getting embroiled in the underground world of drug peddling. Cole escapes his reality by hanging out with Smush, another cowboy who owns of dreaming a ranch and resorts to nefarious activities to fund his dream. This is where the film goes into the overfamiliar territory, giving us the cliched ending which proves that Cole has mended his ways and is willing to give his life a new try.
‘Concrete Cowboy’ is a mix of real riders and non-professional actors alongside the main cast members. Idris Elba is dependable as the grouchy father figure who takes a while to warm up. Caleb McLaughlin is the rebellious Cole. The most impressive cast members are Jharrel Jerome as Smush and Lorraine Toussaint’s Nessie, the tough neighbour who also doubles up as the mother hen to the group.
Music & Other Departments
The film is a slow burn in the screenplay and editing, but is wonderfully shot. You’ll get to see some stunning horses and great riding amidst the actual story. The lighting and art direction is exceptional.
The film’s emotional core is significant, even if a bit repetitive. This is thanks to the excellent performances and the general freshness of the setup.
‘Concrete Cowboy’ is also unfortunately very cliched and very corny, not to mention extremely slow in pacing.
Did I enjoy it?
Partly, I could have chopped off some bits but I liked it overall.
Do I recommend it?
If you like being moved, then go for it. The film is slow and serious so be prepared.