There are communities that exist throughout the country and the world which function differently even from the areas directly surrounding them. Specific interests and a way of life may change how things look or feel, and may just be a major component of what is important to residents. That can look just slightly unlike the norm others are used to or much starker in contrast. Entering such a space can be jarring and uncomfortable, but in keeping with much of societal evolution, things often make much more sense once boundaries come down and presumptions fade away. Concrete Cowboy explores that notion in its depiction of a protagonist who has been rejected over and over by more conventional populations.
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is involved in a fight at school and threatened with expulsion, a recurring event that has left his mother with no remaining option but to drive him from Detroit to Philadelphia and drop him with his father, Harp (Idris Elba). The two have almost no connection, and Cole is startled by the presence of a horse in his father’s home. As he instantly slips back into a potentially problematic friendship with a local drug dealer, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), Cole discovers that he must work his way up to being able to ride and feel like he is an authentic part of the urban cowboy culture that has thrived for generations.
This film is really two experiences in one, showcasing a teenager who feels out of a place with a world that just won’t come easy to him and then presenting a portrait of a real-life group, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, that gets a spotlight through its depiction in this film. The former contains a familiar don’t-be-like-me narrative, with Harp identifying himself and others he knows as a cautionary tale that Cole would do well to keep in mind. Everyone is so busy telling Cole what to do and think, but he’s also not listening at all, rebelling against all instructions and advice he receives. The latter focus is more unexpected and unusual, and many elements of their way of life are reminiscent of other communities that might be depicted as fringe merely because of their emphasis on something that isn’t standard or common. The moments in which Cole begins to feel like this is his home and its existence matters to him as much as it does to everyone who has been part of it for years are among this film’s strongest.
McLaughlin is an actor primarily known for his lighthearted roles as Lucas on “Stranger Things,” and he’s almost unrecognizable in this part, growing up fast to portray someone whose life is complicated not by otherworldly creatures but by his own ego and the subjugation of people who look like him. Despite receiving top billing, Elba’s role here is actually relatively minimal, but he does a fine job, with other supporting players, like Lorraine Toussaint and Method Man, standing out more emphatically. It’s reassuring to see Jerome, who won an Emmy for his heartfelt performance as Corey Wise, one of the Exonerated Five, in When They See Us, continue to take on challenging roles that don’t all feel the same, and he makes Smush a confident but vulnerable influence who truly believes that he is doing what is best for his life trajectory.
Ultimately, this is Cole’s story, and his character arc is both engaging and affirming. He is a productive vehicle to guide this cinematic vision of Philadelphia’s urban horse riding groups. This film’s dialogue and relationships don’t always feel entirely genuine or compelling, but its high points are effective and indicative of the power of this community and the transformative impact on relationships that the development of shared interests can have.
Concrete Cowboy premieres on Netflix on Friday, April 2nd.