MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Western Drama/ Stars: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Clifford “Method Man” Smith, Ivannah-Mercedes, Devenie Young, Peter Shields, Aidan White/Runtime: 111 minutes
I think it is safe to say that when you’ve gotten a chance to both watch it and then subsequently break down what you just watched in your mind, you will find that quite a bit of film helmer Ricky Staub’s new slice of cinematic pie Concrete Cowboy is one that might just a ring bit more on the familiar side than you would think. Yes the assorted components of this narrative are all ingredients that movie goers have seen play out time and time again including the troubled youth who is sent somewhere else due to being in dire need of a 180 degree U-Turn in their life, the teen who finds themselves falling hook, line, and sinker into the depths of criminality, and to the young person who (after much trial and tribulation) is able to make amends and form a bond with an estranged parent that at first might not want to have had that much to do with them in the first place for some reason or another. Suffice it to say that, due to not being able to see the diamonds in the coal pile, the fact is that it would appear at first that all of these assorted components seem like they are going to be utilized in a film that is overrun with clichés we have all seen at least a million times before in a million different slices of cinematic pie. Yet this is one pratfall that this slice of cinematic pie is thankfully able to sidestep remarkably well and instead takes these typical narrative ingredients and blend them together with inspiration from a unique yet genuine group of people that in turn spices these ingredients up with a novel degree of pathos and thus gives us a slice of cinematic pie that manages to come together and become quite the delightful entry in the subgenre of movie magic known as the coming of age saga.
The plot is as follows: An adaptation of a novel known as Ghetto Cowboy that was brought to us by an author named Greg Neri, the slice of cinematic pie that is Concrete Cowboy gets its riveting yarn underway as we witness a teenager from the city of Detroit and going by the name of Cole as he finds himself facing no less than being expelled from his high school in the aftermath of a particularly nasty skirmish with a classmate of his. Thus we see that, due to finding herself both completely exasperated and out of options on how best to help him mature and grow up, Cole’s mom decides to pack everything he has up and ship him off with little to no warning to Northern Philadelphia to stay with his dear ol’ dad Harp. A man who, incidentally, was not only in jail when Cole was conceived, but who also spends most of his day to day at a stable due to being a member of an underground horseback riding organization. It’s also worth pointing out that Harp’s lifestyle really isn’t one that is meant to include the presence of another person let alone his own son. A fact made evident due not only to Cole discovering that his bed consists of a couch that is in extremely close proximity to a horse whose residence happens to be Harp’s living room, but also because there is next to nothing in his fridge with the possible exceptions of cheese, alcohol, and soda. Yet for all these negative attributes about the man, there is one positive that he has going for him and that is he can give this kid a chance to work at something bigger than himself; a fact that sees Cole hired on as a hand at the stable. A job that is grueling, tough, and nowhere near as relaxing as Cole would perhaps like to be. Sadly things are only further exacerbated by our intrepid hero reconnecting with an old friend from when he was a kid by the name of Smush who, in their time apart, has become an incredibly ambitious peddler of certain substances and who Harp wants his boy to have nothing do with. Sadly Cole is unable to see what his father is and as such we see things start to slowly but surely take a turn for the worst as his old friend continues trying to build his own empire and, as a result, start getting on the radar of some people who you would be better off not having anything to do with in the first place….
Right off the saddle, I guess it should be noted that Concrete Cowboy takes quite a few cues in regards to its narrative not only from coming of age sagas, but the western genre of movie magic as well (a fact that is perhaps most evident when you learn that there are forces in town that want to shut down the stable thus requiring the cowpokes to strike back). Yet even when you are able to figure out just where this slice of cinematic pie is going, it still manages to keep you riveted due to its distinct and quite novel aesthetic. Indeed for all the instances that we as movie goers have watched these narratives play out, they manage to give off the vibe of being distinct and novel in such a way that this movie actually is quite riveting in how it gets everything to come together in the way that it does. I mean this is not the first movie where a stubborn teenager learns the importance of being responsible or working hard by dealing with horses, and it’s not the first to immerse itself into the criminal underworld as seen through the eyes of a black teen, but it is seeing this pair of narratives paired up that manages to make this film quite distinct. Indeed it is regard to that mixing together 2 narratives that might seem like they in no way could ever go together that film helmer Ricky Staub deserves to be praised even more so when you know this slice of cinematic pie was his directing debut. No it’s not the most seamless mix in the world, but it does still manage to both tell a quite moving narrative and the work done by cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl does give us some shots that are quite incredible such as one where we see a kid smiling with joy as a beautiful horse gallops past the bus he is riding in town with his mother.
Yet perhaps the key element which goes a long way to giving this slice of cinematic pie the degree of riveting authenticity and/or realism it so desperately needed in order to succeed let alone work on the level that it does is the fact that the movie actually has a few real-life members of this distinct riding club among the cast. At the same time, it should also come as no surprise to learn that these people actually manage to give some of the most impressive if not potent performances in this cast with perhaps the finest being Jamil Prattis in the role of Paris aka the member of the riding club who is assigned the task of teaching our intrepid young hero Cole horse stable 101 as it were. As for the actual thespians in this slice of cinematic pie, we see that in the lead role of Cole, Caleb McLaughlin manages to give us a potent and powerfully moving performance that shows that perhaps there is more to this young man than just being Lucas Sinclair from Stranger Things and Jharrel Jerome is absolutely terrific in how, rather than playing into what we might expect from his role, he manages to transform Smush into a character that is fully-fleshed out and actually sympathetic in a lot of ways. Now, due to the character both not really familiar with how to be a parent and for a lot of the movie keeping his son at arm’s length, Harp is not a constant presence in this and as a result Idris Elba’s screen time is not as significant as his billing might suggest. At the same time though, Idris Elba thankfully is a gifted actor who doesn’t always need to be in every single scene of a movie in order to have an impact on movie goers and this slice of cinematic pie manages to be a riveting showcase for that. Be that as it may be, when Harp finally does decide to start being more of a father, Elba naturally brings to the fray a potent amount of pathos and gravity to the part especially in the moment where he and Cole start bonding to the tunes of John Coltrane.
All in all and at the end of the day, I think it can be said that Concrete Cowboy is a slice of cinematic pie that wishes to regale audiences with a message involving being devoted to something, respecting both those you love and where you come from, and the power of family both in blood and bond in equal measure. Yet even though this slice of cinematic pie is one that has a very typical manner in how it chooses to relay these distinct messages to a movie-going audience, it’s safe to say that the sections that help to distinguish this slice of cinematic pie and help stand as its own distinct film are the ones that count for more than the parts that seem more run of the mill and typical for a movie of this ilk. To that end, I can say that Concrete Cowboy is both riveting and quite emotional movie magic on both sides of the camera that, using an incredibly little known about tradition as a backdrop, sets the stage for an potent and incredible impact to be made with the movie goer who thankfully takes the time to give this slice of cinematic pie a couple hours of their attention. On a scale of 1-5 I give Concrete Cowboy “2020” a solid 3.5 out of 5.