Since theaters have reopened over the first three months of 2021 I’ll admit I’ve been neglecting Netflix a bit, but the streaming service has continued to push forward in full force with its mission to release at least one new original movie a week throughout the year. Last week’s new addition caught my attention, “Concrete Cowboy” a cinematic adaptation of the Greg Neri novel “Ghetto Cowboy” and a fictionalized look at a unique piece of Philadelphia, the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club. Starring Caleb McLaughlin as Cole, a young black teenager who is sent to live with his father and Riding Club member Harp (Idris Elba) in Phillie, the movie follows Cole as he is introduced to the based-on-real-life urban cowboys of the city while also getting involved with a local drug dealer and childhood friend named Smush (Jharrel Jerome) causing Cole to experience a maturing summer in his young life as well as a powerful bonding experience with Harp. Featuring real-life members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, “Concrete Cowboy” is a slick peak into an often-overlooked subset of African American culture in Pennsylvania and a perfectly servable father-son drama, even if it lacks that special something to truly reach “memorable” status.
“Concrete Cowboy” does a lot of things right pretty much from the start introducing us to the world of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a fictionalized version of the real-life club of African American horseback riders who are well known in Philadelphia but I think are much less known outside of the city. The story focuses on 15-year-old Cole who struggles with behavioral issues in school and is taught some harsh lessons about reality when he visits his father, Harp, who himself struggles to be a good parent but the two bond over a summer on the Riding Club’s urban ranch. Caleb McLaughlin and Idris Elba make for a fine pair bringing their A-game to a father-son story that depends heavily on the sincerity and capability of the lead actors. While there’s a bit to be desired, more on that in a minute, McLaughlin and Elba make the most of every second they’re on screen together with Elba serving as the elder who struggles to fit in to his fatherly role while McLaughlin portrays Cole as a believably frustrated young man from a broken family life trying to find his footing, or even wondering if there’s any footing to find. I loved this dynamic, and I also enjoyed that we were handed a fine batch of side characters to compliment these two including real life members of the Riding Club who are surprisingly capable actors in their own right. I have to give credit where it’s due that “Concrete Cowboy” is an effective drama that puts it’s own special touch on the father-son bonding experience as well as the coming-of-age examination of a black teenager who learns the ways of the world.
What soured the experience for me a bit though was that a lot of this movie follows pretty typical story beats, but more frustrating is that it seems to have a hard time finding its focus. The first half of the movie is slow paced and examines Cole’s maturing and adapting to his new reality. The second half of the film however goes a more inspirational route and juggles several plot lines including Cole’s relationship with Smush, a former Riding Club member selling drugs to get out of the city who is meant to show Cole the dark path he could stray to, as well as the city trying to shut down the stables for new developments and, of course, Cole and Harp’s growing father-son bond. As a consequence, the second half of the film feels rushed where the first half feels a bit too dragged out. The attempt to focus on so many different stories, while effective to a degree, makes it hard to latch on to any one narrative as the main theme. These are admittedly simple gripes of a perfectly watchable movie, but these flaws left me with one reaction I feel is important to touch on…I never once felt like I was watching some poetic work I’d ever need to see again. It was unique and had a lot to say, but it didn’t grab me or inspire me the way I think the filmmakers hoped it would because it forsakes a lot of it’s more original elements for more predictable clichés from both the drama and western genres. It lives up to my normal expectations through of wearing its cliché’s proudly and doing it’s own thing with these ideas, but there was little that stood out from me other than the Riding Club itself that would make me turn to this film over other dramas in the same league.
As I said though, while it had its flaws “Concrete Cowboy” has plenty to make up for it. In addition to the action, the film is well shot and feel effectively grounded. It’s also worth mentioning that this is a western genre drama film focusing on a culture of black cowboys that really exist in Phillie. That alone speaks to its surface level uniqueness that alone is enough to make me recommend this film. The subjects are worthy ones that make for a neat insight into a reality most of us probably never even knew existed. Underneath all the clichés and surface issues I saw a story that felt worthy of telling complimented by a certain realism brought out by the use of carefully crafted camerawork, well developed characters, real-life members of the Phillie riding community and even well-trained animal actors that give the horses their own personalities as well. There’s a lot of little things to appreciate that help offset some of the more basic issues working against the film. Depending on what you’re looking for these small touches can make this movie extremely watchable and while I personally wanted something a little more polished, the sincerity and raw nature of this movie was enough to keep me invested and intrigued for the entire nearly-two-hour run time.
“Concrete Cowboy” might have been a mixed bag for me but I certainly enjoyed it more than I disliked it. There are some things that annoyed me like its strange change of personality from the first half to the second where everything from the pacing to the story threads in focus seem to shift abruptly from a slower, simpler film to one more focused on aggressive drama. In spite of that there’s great acting to behold, a believable father-son dynamic that holds it all together and an incredible look into a culture that most probably never even new existed in the urban streets of Philadelphia. I’d recommend “Concrete Cowboy” as more than a western drama. It’s also a cultural experience and while it might not have been as memorable or polished as I personally expected there’s plenty worth experiencing. Plus it’s just nice to see a story focusing on a genuinely unique culture in American on screen. “Concrete Cowboy” is at it’s worst a decent and heartfelt Netflix original worth your time.