Concrete Cowboy (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Into the world of urban riders

Netflix film “Concrete Cowboy”, which was released on last Friday, brings us into a small African American urban community quite unfamiliar to many of us. While the story itself is your average coming-of-age drama coupled with typical father and son issues, the movie is packed with a vivid and authentic sense of locations and people, and we come to observe its interesting juxtaposition of two very different main elements with constant curiosity and interest.

The story begins with the latest trouble of Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a 15-year-old boy who has lived with his single mother in Detroit, Michigan. At his school, he got involved with another violent incident due to his temper problem, and his mother finally decides that enough is enough. After she comes to the school for picking him up, she promptly drives to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and then she simply leaves him on the doorstep of a shabby residence belonging to his father Harp (Idris Elba), whom Cole and his mother have not seen for years since Cole was very young.

Because Harp happens to be not at his residence, Cole soon comes to look for his father, and then he (and we) beholds an unorthodox lifestyle of Harp and his colleagues in their urban neighborhood. Sticking to their long but mostly forgotten tradition of African American cowboys and horse riders, Harp and his colleagues have maintained their own small stable for horses in one nearby spot, and, to Cole’s surprise and displeasure, Harp even keeps his own horse in his residence, which looks more like a stable than a home in many ways.

Naturally, Cole wants to get away from his father and then go back to Detroit as soon as possible, but it goes without saying that he has no choice from the beginning. While an old friend of his, who is now a local drug dealer, is willing to help him a bit, it does not take much time for Cole to realize that there is no other place to stay besides his father’s residence, so he eventually agrees to follow whatever is demanded by his father after his rather rough night at that stable belonging to Harp and his colleagues.

What follows after that is Cole’s struggle to get accustomed to his changed circumstance. As his father instructs, he begins to work in the stable under the guidance of Harp’s colleagues including a middle-aged lady named Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint, who is dependable as usual), who incidentally knew Cole when he was very young. Getting rid of horse manures and other kinds of waste everyday is difficult for Cole to say the least, but he slowly comes to learn of the value of labor discipline while helped by Harp’s colleagues from time to time.

As Cole spends more time with Harp and his colleagues, we get to know more about their way of life, and the screenplay by director Ricky Staub and his co-writer Dan Walser, which is based on Greg Neri’s book “Ghetto Cowboy”, lets us immerse gradually into their small community. As Harp and his colleagues, most of whom are played by the real-life members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia, talk with each other during their evening meeting, we come to sense their passion and dedication to horse riding, which has been one of a few good things onto which they have held in their glum ghetto environment. Later in the story, they provide something special for a member who has not been able to ride horse due to his unfortunate injury, and that is one of the most poignant moments in the film.

Cole comes to appreciate more of what Harp and others show and teach him, but, not so surprisingly, he is also tempted by a life of crime represented by his aforementioned old friend. While this subplot is rather predictable because we can clearly see where it is heading right from the beginning, Jharrel Jerome is engaging at least as a lad who is not so different from what Harp was once, and his functional character is allowed to have some humanity when he shows Cole what he has yearned for years.

Although its third act is a little artificial in generating dramatic tension as required, the movie still engages us as never losing its focus on the father and son relationship between Harp and Cole. While these two different main characters eventually arrive at a touching moment of reconciliation and reconnection as expected, it is delivered with a considerable amount of sincerity and sensitivity, and there is a wonderful moment when they and other riders do some horse riding around their ghetto neighborhood while others are watching them with awe and fascination.

The story depends a lot on the dynamic relationship development between Cole and Harp, and Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin did a commendable job of conveying that to us. Quite charismatic as usual despite his shabbier appearance, Elba, who also participated in the production of the film, effortlessly embodies his character on the whole, and Caleb McLaughlin, who has been mainly known for his performance in Netflix drama series “Stranger Things”, holds his own place well next to Elba.

Overall, “Concrete Cowboy” is often predictable in terms of story and characters, but it still works thanks to its competent direction and good performances, and its anthropologic moments are certainly worthwhile to watch. Its package is pretty familiar on the surface, but its contents are quite interesting, and you will probably want to look more into its main subject after the movie is over.

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