Concrete Cowboy is about Cole, a teenager from Detroit, who has screwed up one too many times. His mother can't think of what else to do with him, so she drives him to his father's house in Philadelphia to spend the summer living with him. Little does Cole know, but his father is one of the cowboys of Fletcher Street and while Cole will try to avoid trouble with his old friends, he will also learn the value of hard work in the stables. The film stars Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba, Lorraine Toussaint, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Ivannah-Mercedes, Jamil Prattis, and Cliff "Method Man" Smith. The film is directed by Ricky Staub and written by Staub and Dan Walser. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
There's a unique mixture of genres within Concrete Cowboy that makes the film come together in a way that makes it hard to predict. It's an urban drama for sure, but it includes a coming of age element while also mixing in the ideas and ideals of a western. With all of that, the tropes that are common within each genre are given a new twist with varying results.
The relationship between Cole and Harp, his father, didn't land for me. I understood the sort of tough love that evolves into tenderness angle of it, but it felt like there were so few scenes with just the two of them, it never developed beyond my head nod of, "O.K., this is also about fathers and sons." It also felt like at times Harp was dealing with the loss, in spirit, of his surrogate son in Smush, a former rider turned drug dealer, but that was never further developed either.
What did keep my interest was the ideas presented by Leroy, a rider turned police officer. As an antecedent to Smush, Leroy tells Cole of the path one can take if one stays in the city and keeps up with the cowboy life. The big deal with Smush is that he wants to get out of Philadelphia, he wants to buy land out west and he wants to exist in the quiet. What Leroy offers is that despite the pitfalls of living in the city, the cowboys are happy as long as they can raise and ride their horses and some even make money legitimately using the skills they learned, which is something Cole can't do with Smush.
Like most films about the struggles of inner city life, Concrete Cowboy shows that there can be a life outside of the easy money of drugs. It's incredible, though, that the film allows for a credible option to be presented rather than just "getting out." It's even woven into the plot by a western trope of the "bank" or in this case the city, attempting to force the people off the land so it can be resold and repurposed.
The look of the film also takes on that western genre quality. Director Ricky Staub and cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl contrast the bright shining sun on a field and pair that with exciting, open space riding and exploration. There's a deftness to the scenes of Cole's night activities with Smush as well. The genre mashup is well crafted so the seams of the different pieces never show through.
Concrete Cowboy has a beating, beautiful heart at its core. The story is well trod and the main characters rarely go beyond scratching the surface. Though, it's lovingly photographed and the scenes of the connection between human and horse are mesmerizing. It's worth your time and energy to seek it out and think about how urban development often only helps one group and it's rarely the group already occupying the space.