Concrete Cowboy | Directed by Ricky Staub | Written by Staub and Dan Walser, based on the book by Greg Neri | 111 min | Netflix
A version of this review was first posted during the Toronto International Film Festival in September, 2020.
Knowing Concrete Cowboy is based on a Young Adult novel explains a lot about a narrative that seems a lot less complex than it promises to be early on. Fourteen-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, one of the kids on Stranger Things) is getting into fights at his high school in Detroit, so his mother sends him to spend the summer with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba), who considers himself something of an urban cowboy — though no relation to the John Travolta ’80s movie. This is based on an actual Philadelphia equestrian subculture, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club and The Black Cowboys, helping to teach young people about horses.
It’s the backdrop of horse culture and the location details that help distinguish this otherwise conventional story. We get a series of scenes that would be more common in a western, including the campfire drinks, singalong, and bullshit sesh, the horse racing, and even a bit of horse thieving. That’s fresh for a coming-of-age story set in the city, but then there’s the almost instant teen panacea of hard work and horse care for Cole, who never really gets a chance to explain why he was troubled in the first place. Was it that he just missed his father? We get the bad-influence bestie (Jharrel Jerome) who dreams of, wait what? Flipping ranch houses in the west? The script occasionally strays into the ridiculous, which is a major drawback in what’s otherwise a promising scenario.
If you’ve been paying attention you’ll be able to guess every second plot development as the film gradually, literally and figuratively, leads the horses out of the stable. Unpredictable it isn’t, but the heart in the characters and the opportunity to see something authentic in American life that’s never been given much of a chance on the big screen, those things make Concrete Cowboy worth taking for a ride.