The first still from Concrete Cowboy dropped like a bombshell, blowing Idris Elba fans away with the sexy swagger of an urban cowboy, riding coolly through his city terrain. Two more images were presented to promote this father-son drama to the world, and each featured Elba. So, I was frankly surprised to discover what a small role he actually has in this TIFF World Premiere. Still, more Elba is perhaps not what this movie needs most.
Directed by Ricky Staub, Concrete Cowboy stars Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin as Cole, a Detroit teen who’s delinquency has pushed his single-mom (Liz Priestley) to her breaking point. So, she sends Cole to spend the summer with his father in North Philadelphia. There, she hopes he will straighten up and fly right. But as his dad, Harp (Elba), is an urban cowboy, Cole is urged to learn how to ride.
Inspired by a real North Philly subculture of Black horse trainers, Concrete Cowboy has this trouble-seeking city boy find a new purpose in the rundown Fleet Street Stables, which are being threatened by encroaching gentrification. As soon as Cole is back on the block, he’s called to by neighbors who remember him from when he was no taller than a cowboy boot. Orange Is the New Black’s Lorraine Toussaint offers him welcome along with Bible-inspired advice. Then, his childhood pal Smush (When They See Us’s Jharrel Jerome) drives up in a hot ride, dressed sharp and flashing cash. Immediately, Harp demands Cole choose between the street life and the stables, putting further strain on their bond. By day, Cole shovels manure and learns the ropes of riding. By night, he sneaks out to deal and party with Smush. Something’s got to give.
The performances by all of the above are excellent. McLaughlin leaves behind the smirking geek of Stranger Things to shoulder a more mature role. He does so with aplomb, his dark eyes burning with an intensity that speaks of teen angst and recklessness. He’s a solid scene partner to Elba, whose stare could burn down a barn. Toussaint is tough yet tender, instantly establishing her as the block matriarch. With a cocky smile and a wooly enthusiasm, Jerome is a charm bomb, which makes it easier to see why Smush’s path is so tempting to Cole. Unfortunately, the main plotline never quite clicks because the script lacks specificity.
Though inspired by real people, the film’s plot is plucked from G. Neri’s YA novel Ghetto Cowboy. In the adapted screenplay, Staub and Dan Walser chuck us into Cole’s journey without giving us a sense of who Cole is or how he sees himself. McLaughlin brings angst, but the script gives him little to do outside of play angry or awed. Cole’s growth is charted less by powerful scenes and more by the prizes he’s awarded, from accessories to a horse, to a girlfriend. His father is defined by machismo and quirks, like keeping a full-grown steed named Chuck in his house. So these two are more caricatures than people. Deep in the second act, one dynamic and contrite monologue aims to ignite their story. However, it’s too little too late, leaving the climax feeling frustratingly flat.
Still, in his directorial feature debut, Staub shows a skill for composing powerful visuals and heart-gripping moments. Shots of these horsemen riding down streets, racing through parks, and even chilling around a sidewalk campfire making it easy to see why they inspired. The slo-mo scene in which a child on a bus watches these proud Black cowboys ride tall as they outpace the vehicle is positively breathtaking. Then, one of the most poignant performances comes from one real-life concrete cowboy, who gets back in the saddle in a sensational sequence.
Jamil “Mil” Prattis plays Paris, who becomes a mentor to Cole down at the stables. In character, he shares a story of loss, regret, and rebirth. It is moving, insightful, and specific. It’s all that the overarching plot only scratches at. Even though he’s only in a few scenes, Prattis brings across the beauty and power of this band of riders in terms so clear and elegant they cannot be forgotten. So, it’s frustrating when over the end credits, Staub reveals several of the supporting cast are also real-life urban cowboys! In interview snippets, the others come alive on camera in a way they do not in the film. Perhaps it’s a matter of the edit. Perhaps it felt different to perform instead of just talk. Regardless, it’s a shame that the bonus bit at the end feels like a teaser of what Concrete Cowboy could have been!
Despite these stumbles, Concrete Cowboy is a drama that boasts touching performances, terrific character, and some moments of absolute cinematic bliss. It’s a bumpy ride, studded with confounding script choices and some unearned beats. Yet it manages to capture the magic of the Fleet Street Stables while announcing to the world that McLaughlin is ready to stride out of an ensemble and into the spotlight.
Now on Netflix, Concrete Cowboy was originally reviewed out of Toronto International Film Festival 2021, where it made its World Premiere.
Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
Header Image Source: TIFF