Concrete Cowboy

When 15 year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) pushes his stressed mother to the end of her rope, she packs up his things and drives him from Detroit to Philadelphia to spend the summer with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba).  Cole is despondent, then shocked by the way his father lives with no food in his kitchen and a horse, Chuck, in his living room!  But while Cole is tempted into the fast, dangerous drug money his old friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome, "Moonlight") promotes, he also begins to appreciate the lifestyle of the Fletcher Street Stable regulars where his dad is a “Concrete Cowboy.”

Laura's Review: B

The horse-as-therapy movie has been in vogue of late with films like “Lean on Pete” and “The Mustang” and horses in general have been in films since the beginning of cinema.  But for his feature debut, which he cowrote with Dan Walser, director Ricky Staub pairs a coming-of-age tale with a real, legendary Black urban equestrian institution and many of its members, giving his film a rich environment while providing an awareness boost for the stables.  The Fletcher Street Stables neighborhood bears the same street architecture as Rocky Balboa’s (his house is actually 3 miles away on East Tusculum Street), but cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl (Staub's short "The Cage") has given the whole the burnished glow of perpetual sunset, another striking element of this film.  This is exactly the type of mid-level adult film that studios have backed away from which can be so satisfying.

Dumped outside his father’s door with his belongings in trash bags, Cole is recognized by Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint) from her upstairs window and directed to the stables down the street.  Harp is one of a group of men wearing cowboy hats sitting chatting around a barrel fire.  He interrupts the intimate scene to acknowledge Cole and bring him home.  Harp isn’t unkind, but isn’t a coddler either, leaving Cole to make a place for himself sharing quarters with Chuck.  The next day Cole immediately begins to work on getting home.  He’s out on a corner begging to use strangers’ phones when his cousin Smush pulls up, delighted to see him.  They drive around all night, smoking weed. The next morning Harp is quick to inform Cole where he’ll end up if he hangs out with Smush.  Cole simply walks past, convinced he’ll be able to stay with his cousin, but Smush’s mom isn’t having it.

It will be an evening spent sleeping in a stall with Boo; Esha (Ivannah-Mercedes), a young woman around his age he’s seen his dad training; and Paris (Jamil Prattis), a wheelchair bound horse owner, who begin to get through to Cole.  Nessie wakens Cole to inform him that Boo is, of course, a difficult horse who’s seemed to accept him and could be his.  Esha repeats mantras like ‘Hard things come before good things,’ as she slops out stalls, noting that horses are ‘the only things that get broken around here.’  Paris will work the young man until he begins to get things right.  Cole finally approaches Harp with ‘I’m ready to ride a horse or whatever…’        

The drama will, of course, be between Smush dangling the flashy drug life and dreams of getting out (he too, it turns out, was once a Fletcher Street regular and wishes to buy a ranch) and Harp’s growing influence over his son.  Staub stages two dynamic scenes promoting the latter, one beautifully edited (Luke Ciarrocchi) horse breaking scene with Boo and a more intimate father and son moment where Cole learns how he was named.  A third climactic scene which ties the two together provides a stunning moment of realization about just why Chuck’s been living in Harp’s living room.

McLaughlin, from Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things,’ ably shoulders the lead here, evoking both our frustration and sympathy.  Elba is fantastic, his laid back mumble in keeping with his tack room camaraderie, his delivery coming into sharper focus as the father son dynamic gels.  Toussaint adds some down-to-earth warmth while Method Man provides a bridge between his old neighborhood and the law that confronts it.  Straub’s achieved a fine balance between his professional actors and the Fletcher Street regulars (something not quite achieve by Chloe Zhao in “Nomadland”), but there are a few deficiencies in his screenplay that keep the film from soaring higher.  Straub elevates the stables, elder Charlie giving us its 100 year history, but while its crushing costs are noted, the livelihoods of its members are more of a mystery, as is the reason behind a dead animal that brings animal control calling.  An ambiguous fate for the community leans instead on sentimentality for the film’s wrap.

Robin's Review: B

I have to admit, I knew nothing about the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in North Philadelphia until I sat down to watch first-time feature director Ricky Staub’s well-done tale of real urban “Concrete Cowboys.”

15-year old Cole, too much to handle for his mom, is unceremoniously sent from his Detroit home to spend the summer with his father, her estranged husband, Harp (Idris Elba). When Cole arrives on his dad’s doorstep, he is shocked to find out that, besides Harp, his other roommate is a horse named Chuck.

This introduction to a very unusual tribe of noble equestrians brings us to a unique world of horsemen honing their skills on the wild and wooly plains of North Philie where the urban stables once thrived 100 years ago. Now, urban spread and lack of money threatens this unique existence.

First-time director Ricky Staub assembles a fine cast of both professional actors and members of the equestrian tribe to tell a story of rugged individuals living in the loving memory of the past and hope for the future. The production, especially the magical photography by Minka Farthing-Kohl, perfectly complements the story.

“Concrete Cowboy” premieres on Netflix on 4/2/21.