Concrete Cowboy tells the story of a troubled young boy (Cole) who’s sent to live with his estranged father during the summer break. Over the course of those few months he begins to find solace and develop a bond with a small group of Philadelphia Black Cowboys.
This film falls in a unique spot with me where everything it does has been done before, while at the same time, it does it all pretty well so you can’t really fault it. It sets the premise (troubled teen being made to stay with his estranged father) straight from the beginning without wasting any time at all. We see Cole’s mother receiving a phone call from his school stating that he’s been in another fight and that they’re strongly recommending him for expulsion. After a short scene with her exclaiming to him how she’s tried everything with him and there’s only one thing left, we’re right outside his fathers apartment and the rest of the movie takes it from there.
I appreciate the expediency with which the opening occurs because within seconds I could tell where this whole film was going, the plot, the character arcs, and various beats and moments. And that’s not to say that this is an issue, far from it, but it would have been more frustrating if it had taken longer for the story to get to the point where I knew it was going.
I’ll start off with the major issue I had with the movie (and like I mentioned above, I’m generally okay with it regardless) and that being that it’s pretty by the numbers, at least plot-wise. Rebellious teenager is dropped into a group of people (Philadelphia Cowboys) who he’s initially hostile towards. Over the course of the story and various predictable character moments later, the teenager is not so rebellious anymore, slows down, and appreciates the new company he shares. We see moments of weakness, strength, perseverance, and finally, clarity all wrapped in under two hours.
Now of course I’m being extremely reductive and that’s because to find any legitimate criticism with this movie you probably have to be. While the path the story travels is well tread, it does so exceptionally. All of the arcs are evenly paced while simultaneously are not a smooth journey. We have the hard headed protagonist, flawed father, the friend who’s a terrible influence (while actually being more three dimensional than I expected), and of course the Philadelphia Cowboys who are both a safe haven and one that’s fragile and needs protecting. The themes are commendable and worth exploring and while it isn’t a happy trek the entire time, it definitely left me feeling some form of comfort with the way it ended.
The final piece in the puzzle has to be the amazing performances (some of which are from some unexpected places). Idris Elba is of course reliably phenomenal in his role as Harp. While he starts out playing the tough love father, there comes a moment later in the film where the harsh exterior gives way and the manner in which he plays this moment is so awesome to watch. We then have Caleb McLaughlin as Cole who I don’t think I’ve seen in anything other than his major role in Stranger Things and holy shit has he grown up! He kills it in this role and I was so pleasantly surprised with the depth that he brought to it since it’s quite different from what he’d been doing previously.
The last standouts though were from the ensemble cast, many of whom are actual members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. This surprised me so much (when it was revealed in the closing credits) since a lot of the people highlighted as real life members had pretty sizable speaking roles throughout the movie. It also helped cement a level of authenticity to the film, since I didn’t realize it was originally based on a true story so seeing people who lived through this being an integral part of the production was powerful.
All in all, while we’ve seen ‘Concrete Cowboy’ done several times before, the level of quality with which it’s executed more than makes up for it and is reason alone for why you should make the time to experience it yourself if you’re so inclined.