'Concrete Cowboy' Is a Love Letter to an Overlooked Subculture Directed by Ricky Staub
Starring Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Method Man
Published Apr 01, 2021Ricky Staub's directional debut brings audiences to North Philadelphia and into the world of the urban cowboy. A father-son story and a coming-of-age tale, Concrete Cowboy is many things, but its greatest strength is putting a spotlight on a subculture and showing its beauty.
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin of Stranger Things) is a teenager from Detroit who is going down a bad path and is sent to live with his father, Harp (Idris Elba), in Philly. A fish out of water, Cole struggles to acclimate to his new surroundings, getting caught up in street violence, all while trying to understand his estranged father.
The performances in Concrete Cowboy are all terrific. Elba isn't on screen for as much as you would think given his top billing, but every minute he is, he commands your attention. McLaughlin shines as the young man trying to find his footing in a new environment, balancing false confidence and vulnerability beautifully. And Liz Priestley, in a small supporting role as Cole's mother, delivers a heart-wrenching portrayal of a parent who lets go of her son for his benefit. She is only in the movie for a few minutes, but her devastation is raw and will stay with audiences well after the screen fades to black.
Staub based Concrete Cowboy on the Greg Neri novel Ghetto Cowboy — a fictionalized telling of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in North Philly. It was filmed in that neighbourhood with actual members of the riding club recruited to play supporting roles and as extras. By making these production choices, Staub builds a world in his film that feels authentic, giving audiences a true sense of the grit and heart of this community.
As a first-time director, Staub's filming style is aggressive. His tracking shots, and the editing decisions to speed up the film as Cole and his friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome) ride the streets, are reminiscent of turn-of-the-millennium indie films. Staub aims to put viewers right in the middle of this neighbourhood, having us feel the humidity inside the stables and the tension of the streets at night; for the most part, he succeeds.
Concrete Cowboy is only let down by trying to be too many things. The beginning of the movie is set up as a father-son story, but we get very little of that relationship arc, as the focus turns to Cole's friendship with Smush and his negative influence over Cole. A love story is presented but not developed in any meaningful way. An interesting plot point about the stables being demolished for development is only truly explored right at the end of the film. Concrete Cowboy gallops through a number of storylines and unfortunately doesn't fully deliver on any of them.
That being said, this movie does a great job of introducing unfamiliar audiences to the world of urban horse riding. The bonds between the riders, the positive influence it has over the community, and the love and warmth shown in scenes like the cookout paint a beautiful world. Despite its flaws, this fascinating glimpse into a subculture makes Concrete Cowboy an enjoyable ride. (Netflix)