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“Horses ain’t the only thing that needs breaking around here,” says one of the Fletcher Street Stables riders in Concrete Cowboy. She’s referring to the wayward teenager who’s been exiled for the summer to acquire some discipline from his estranged father. That familiar metaphor is hardly new, trotted out recently to stirring effect in The Mustang. But the occasional touch of cliché or corny dialogue can’t dampen the vibrant spirit of this moving, well-acted drama about a fractured family coming together in unexpected ways.
Based on the 2011 YA novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri, the film gets a captivating lift from its distinctive setting around the urban-cowboy subculture of North Philadelphia, where rescue horses are cared for by a group of African American riders, some of them shaking off former associations with drugs and street gangs. The material has been rendered grittier for the screen, but nonetheless represents an inspirational Black community story, a quality that drew Lee Daniels and Idris Elba to the producing team.
The knowledge that Fletcher Street is among the last of a vanishing city tradition of safe havens being stomped out by rampant property development gives Ricky Staub’s first feature a gentle elegiac quality, amplified by the presence of real-life stables regulars.
Black inner-city horsemen go back more than 100 years in North Philly, their cowboy customs passed down between generations even after horse-drawn carts were phased out. The script by Staub and Dan Walser also makes evocative reference to the history of Black cowboys who were whitewashed out of Hollywood Westerns.
Facing expulsion from school in Detroit not for the first time, 15-year-old Cole (Stranger Things‘ Caleb McLaughlin) is sent by his infuriated mother Amahle (Liz Priestley) to stay for the summer with Harp (Elba), the ex-con father he hardly knows. Harp has his own issues with the ways in which he failed his wife and son, and his ramshackle house, complete with an unfriendly horse in the living room, doesn’t exactly promise to be a nurturing environment. Cole gets more warmth from his father’s neighbor Nessi (Lorraine Toussaint), who like Harp is a Stetson-wearing fixture at Fletcher Street.
The stables themselves are a delightfully incongruous sight in the inner city, a dilapidated row of horse stalls with a gathering of Black cowboys regularly camped out front, blasting hip-hop and trap tunes or swapping stories around an oil drum fire late into the night. Harp clearly belongs here, commanding respect and affection from the men and women in the group.
Cole finds it hard to reconcile that easygoing rapport with his father’s gruff manner toward his own son. Their differences are aggravated when Cole gets taken under the wing of Smush (Jharrel Jerome, from When They See Us and Moonlight), a cousin he hasn’t seen since childhood who is now part of the neighborhood drug-dealing network. Harp threatens to throw Cole out if he starts running with Smush, so he continues seeing his cousin in secret while working at the stables during the day.
There’s low-key comedy in those scenes, particularly once Nessi puts him to work mucking out stalls. “This is gonna be good,” she mutters to herself as she eyes his pristine white kicks, a gift from Smush.
Cole’s hours at Fletcher Street also teach him the value of community, as he gets tips on shoveling and disposing of horse manure from Paris (Jamil “Mil” Prattis), whose willingness to act as the newcomer’s surrogate big brother springs from the sorrowful history that left him in a wheelchair. Lessons in trust, tenderness and support also come from Cole’s initially scary experience with Boo, a horse too wild for the other riders, while the first delicate hints of romance surface between him and Esha (Ivannah Mercedes).
A local cop who was once a regular at the stables, Leroy (Cliff “Method Man” Smith), drops by often, never failing to remind them that their time on the rented property has an expiration date, with developers closing in.
A flare-up between Cole and Harp exposes the heart of the father-son drama, with both Elba and McLaughlin bringing raw feeling to their characters’ hunger to forge a real bond. A shot of them sitting at a cautious distance on Harp’s ratty sofa, with the hazy sunlight streaming in through makeshift curtains, is a lovely moment of fragile détente.
As Smush gets reckless about scamming the ruthless kingpin for whom he supposedly works, the film becomes more predictable, inching toward inevitable tragedy. But Staub and DP Minka Farthing-Kohl keep the crime scenes moving with propulsive handheld camerawork and energized chase episodes, boosted also by Kevin Matley’s soulful score with subtle Western accents.
What really keeps the film on track, however, is the emotionally involving grasp of character in both the script and the performances of a terrific ensemble. McLaughlin greatly expands his range from Stranger Things here, balancing punkish swagger with vulnerability, while Elba, with a salt-and-pepper beard and a cigarillo forever planted in the corner of his mouth, is entirely convincing as a tough-loving man still figuring out how he fits into the traditional family model. “The only home I’ve ever known was on the back of a horse,” he says, in one of several lines that might prompt an eye-roll in a movie less disarmingly grounded in its milieu.
That aspect is strengthened by the unselfconscious contributions of Fletcher Street riders Mercedes, Prattis, Albert C. Lynch Jr. and Michael “Miz” Upshur, all of whom speak about their life-changing association with the stables over the end credits. But the film’s secret weapon is Toussaint, memorable as season 2 badass Vee on Orange is the New Black, here playing a mother figure of an entirely more spiritual nature, world-weary but still caring, who holds the community together.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: Waxylu Films, in association with Neighborhood Film Co., Green Door Pictures
Cast: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Ivannah Mercedes, Jamil “Mil” Prattis, Liz Priestley, Albert C. Lynch Jr., Michael “Miz” Upshur
Director: Ricky Staub
Screenwriters: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser, based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy, by Greg Neri
Producers: Tucker Tooley, Lee Daniels, Idris Elba, Dan Walser, Jeff Waxman, Jennifer Madeloff
Executive producers: Greg Renker, Jason Barhydt, Gregoire Gensollen, Lorraine Burgess, Greg Neri, Sam Mercer, Tegan Jones, Staci Hagenbaugh, Alastair Burlingham, Gary Raskin
Director of photography: Minka Farthing-Kohl
Production designer: Tim Stevens
Costume designer: Teresa Binder-Westby
Music: Kevin Matley
Editor: Luke Ciarrocchi
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Lindsay Graham
Sales: Endeavor Content, Sierra Affinity
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