It feels like a tale as old as time: Wayward teenage son meets up with estranged father, one needing some straightening out, the other some serious humanizing. Can they connect?
But if that’s the familiar story at the heart of “Concrete Cowboy,” starring the appealing duo of Idris Elba and terrific newcomer Caleb McLaughlin, there’s much more here to contemplate. That’s because of the fascinating, very real-life world in which this predictable yet warm-hearted story takes place: the community of Black equestrians in North Philadelphia.
Wait, what? Urban cowboys in the streets of Philly? That’s exactly the reaction 15-year-old Cole (McLaughlin) has after being transported from Detroit and dumped in the streets by his desperate Mom, who hopes Dad will set him right. Harp (Elba) is over at the stables, Cole is told. He replies: “The WHAT?”
“Concrete Cowboy,” an impressive debut by writer-director Ricky Staub that overcomes formulaic dialogue and we-saw-that-coming plot twists with its sheer heart, is based on a novel, ”Ghetto Cowboy” by Gregory Neri. But if the story is fiction, the film finds its greatest strengths in the parts that are real. In an inspired choice, Staub casts some key supporting roles with actual members of the Fletcher Street Stables, a unique equestrian community more than a century old (hint: you can tell these regulars by who’s a natural in the saddle.)
The most effective scenes are those that include these true-life figures, such as a joyful community celebration, or a campfire scene in which actors like McLaughlin and the always wonderful Lorraine Toussaint, as neighbor Nessie, mix with regulars telling their stories. While illuminating the long history of Fletcher Street, they also set us, and Cole, straight about the Hollywood-enabled myth that all cowboys looked like John Wayne. “You thought all cowboys were white?” one of them scoffs. Notes Nessie: “Hollywood has whitewashed us. They just deleted us out of the history books.”
The story begins with Cole facing expulsion from high school in Detroit. His mother, at the end of her tether, packs his belongings into a few garbage bags and drives him to his father’s Philadelphia doorstep. He is not happy. “Mama, don’t leave me here!” he yells.
It only gets worse when Cole sees the ramshackle apartment Harp an ex-con, lives in. There’s nothing but beer in the fridge, and Harp's roommate is … a horse. Cole bolts, and finds himself in the arms of Smush, a charismatic cousin who promises to show him “how Philly pops.”
Smush (the excellent Jharrel Jerome) has dreams of owning a ranch out West; he’s a cowboy, too. But he wants to make money quickly, and that means a risky sideline involving drugs. The story settles into worn territory here, with Smush representing the temptation of the streets, and Harp and his friends representing a tougher, more honest existence.
Staub spent two years getting to know the Fletcher Street Stables community, and it shows, especially in his welcome choice to feature several real urban cowboys. One is Jamil Prattis as Paris, who teaches Cole how to clean manure out of a stall (tip: use a wheelbarrow). Then there's Ivannah Mercedes as Esha, a young woman at the stables who advises Cole that horses aren’t the only ones that need “breaking in” — he does, too. There’s a sweet hint of romance, and when Esha teaches Cole how to stand up on a horse, it’s a gesture rich in symbolism.
Not to give anything away, but t’s pretty clear Harp and Cole will wind up appreciating each other. Elba, who unsurprisingly looks great on a horse (but in truth is somewhat allergic to them), has fewer lines than we might like, but gives off a steady, grizzled vibe that grounds the movie. He also pulls off a motivational speech that would sound way too corny coming from anyone else. As for McLaughlin, the film would falter without his fresh, honest and unaffected presence throughout.
The best comes last, though — and by that we mean the closing credits, where members of the Fletcher Street community (the city of Philadelphia is developing the vacant lots they use, we learn) discuss its importance, especially to youngsters who would otherwise be on the streets.
“I think if more people knew how important the stable was to so many young people who don’t have anywhere else to go,” Mercedes says — not finishing the sentence. She doesn’t have to.
“Concrete Cowboy,” a Netflix release, has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language throughout, drug use and some violence.” Running time: 111 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.