Producers: Tucker Tooley, Lee Daniels, Idris Elba, Dan Walser, Jeff Waxman and Jennifer Madeloff Director: Ricky Staub Screenplay: Ricky Staub and and Dan Walser Cast: Idris Elba, Caleb McLauglin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint, Cliff “Method Man” Smith, Ivannah Mercedes, Jamil “Mil” Prattis, Devenie Young and Liz Priestley Distributor: Netflix
A familiar tale of a boy and his horse is given an urban spin in Ricky Staub’s gritty but predictable drama based on Greg Neri’s 2011 YA novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” but “Concrete Cowboy,” as it’s been retitled, is no less hokey in Philadelphia than it would be in Billings. It does, however, have an intriguing narrative backdrop.
That’s a group of African-American equestrians in North Philadelphia, the Fletcher Street Riding Club, a non-profit organization that keeps alive a long tradition of black urban horsemanship they trace back to black cowboys. The group actually exists and mentors troubled kids by having them help with the animals and teaching them to ride. Some of its members appear in the film.
Into a portrait of this group, or a semi-fictionalized version of it, is dropped the story of Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a troubled teen from Detroit whose exasperated mother Amahle (Liz Priestley) drives him to Pennsylvania after he’s been expelled from yet another school for fighting. She’s decided Cole’s going to spend the summer with his estranged ex-con father Harp (Idris Elba), whether he likes it or not.
Harp hardly receives the boy with open arms, but as a member of the riders, as is his tough but sensitive neighbor Messi (Lorraine Toussaint), he offers Cole a place to stay as long as he toes the line, including working at the dilapidated stables, literally shoveling horse manure from the stalls under the eye of Paris (Jamil “Mil” Prattis), a wheelchair-bound overseer who explains, in one of the film’s periodic sensitive monologues, the sad circumstances behind his physical condition.
But Cole has to make a decision whether to throw in his lot with Harp or follow the lead of Smush (Jharrel Jerome), an old friend who’s now in the drug trade but taking risks that might bring the hammer of the kingpin he ostensibly works for down on him. Cole’s decision is also affected by his interest in both Boo, a rambunctious horse that responds to his attention, and Esha (Ivannah Mercedes), an attractive member of the horse club who just must reciprocate his feelings.
Meanwhile the very existence of the makeshift stable is threatened by developers, whose plans are impressed on Harp and the other members of the group by Leroy (Cliff “Method Man” Smith), a cop who was once one of them but is now looked upon as an instrument of the establishment.
Much that happens in “Concrete Cowboy” is utterly predictable, and from a purely technical perspective it’s nothing special. But Staub and his editor Luke Ciarrocchi keep it moving reasonably well. Production designer Tim Stevens and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl, working in handheld style, give it an appropriately grubby texture, and designer Teresa Binder-Westby’s costumes add some nifty touches to the wardrobe, especially in terms of the Stetsons. Kevin Matley’s atmospheric score is also a plus.
What mostly keeps the film afloat, though, are the performances. Elba is his usual commanding self, bringing authority to a role that is frankly a cliché, with a soulful scene, for example, when he explains whom he was named after. McLaughlin’s inchoate rage can at first seem melodramatic, but the young actor manages to make the transformation Cole experiences over the course of the story credible. The others are all fine, with Toussaint bringing a strong sense of empathy to Nessi.
The group that serves as the centerpiece of the movie is so remarkable that one regrets such a conventional narrative has been imposed on it, but despite that, “Concrete Cowboy” still delivers considerable rewards.