Concrete Cowboy is loaded with cliche, but it shines a spotlight on a little-understood sub-culture and boasts excellent performances, particularly from Caleb McLaughlin in the lead role.
Just a day after Stranger Things alum Gaten Matarazzo returns to Netflix with the second season of his horror-themed hidden-camera show Prank Encounters, fellow Hawkins kid Caleb McLaughlin stars in Concrete Cowboy, the impressive if cliched debut feature of Ricky Staub. The difference is that Matarazzo is playing himself, who’s really just a less exaggerated version of the character he plays on the show, whereas McLaughlin is playing against type so convincingly that it took me half of the movie to actually realize it was him.
McLaughlin is excellent in Concrete Cowboy as Cole, a wayward 15-year-old who, facing expulsion from his Detroit school, is deposited by his long-suffering single mother Amahle (Liz Priestley) on the stoop of his estranged contemporary cowboy father, Harp (Idris Elba), one of a handful of Black inner-city horsemen (and women!) who have preserved the lifestyle and attitude of the classic West and applied it to the Fletcher Street Stables of Philadelphia. Against this unique backdrop, Staub tells a typical father-son story as Cole is pulled this way and that by the stern, traditionalist father he barely knows, and his cousin, Smush (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome), a drug-dealer with designs on bigger, riskier opportunities.
You can tell by the plot summary that Concrete Cowboy, despite a tremendous sense of place and identity, is loaded with cliché. The difficult son bonding with his father is gone, as is the dichotomy of inner-city street life with a better, safer, more honorable way of living. Then you have stuff like Cole being the only one able to break Boo, a dangerous, unruly horse with which he finds kinship and purpose. But thanks to an unhurried pace and excellent performances, Staub is able to get much more emotional contouring out of the archetypes, and some of the supporting turns – Jamil Prattis as the wheelchair-bound Paris, one of Cole’s tutors, and Method Man as a local cop, stand out in particular – help to create an evocative, at times moving tapestry.
Despite this Concrete Cowboy is inevitably weighed down by its responsibilities to the neo-Western and crime genres that can sometimes overshadow the spotlight it’s shining on a misunderstood – and rarely dramatized – subculture. But it’s a promising first feature full of sturdy performances and interesting elements that still manages to be quite striking in its visuals and ideas.