When Cole (McLaughlin) gets into repeated trouble, his mum sends him to live with his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) in North Philadelphia. While there, the rebellious teen finds kinship in a tight-knit community of Black cowboys.
The familiarity of the story is down to the plot: "Teen on the verge sent to a new and daunting place and finds community and acceptance." That in and of itself is a story we've seen before. What makes Concrete Cowboy worth watching is the completely unique setting, the characters' dynamics, and the power of its actors.
As the begrudging but eventually dedicated father, Elba gives a solid – if slightly removed – performance. His aloofness, however, suits the character and isn't so much of a distraction.
There is also the added layer of tension within the community itself, as it looks towards the future of its stables and its culture. As gentrification and poverty intertwine to threaten it, what can hold it together?
These questions are not asked subtly, but Concrete Cowboy never claimed to be a subtle film. Bringing the needed nuance to the film is McLaughlin's Cole.
McLaughlin plays Cole with an adroit combination of chest-beating frustration, simmering anger and deep-buried sadness. As such, Cole is an empathetic character, one that you can see yourself in, even if you've never ridden a horse through northern Philly.
Concrete Cowboy strikes a balance between eliciting a feeling of universal empathy, but also maintaining and respecting the specificity in Cole's, and the community's, struggles. They may not be deftly crafted conversations, but they're brutal and honest and sometimes that's exactly what we need.
There may be some who find it a bit too schmaltzy, but the movie knows how to tug on your heartstrings without being overly manipulative. Instead, you find yourself moved as you go along with Cole, Harp, and the other riders of Fletcher Street.
What makes Concrete Cowboy even more engaging as a movie is that the supporting cast are all genuine riders from Northern Philadelphia's former Fletcher Street Stables. It reinforces the need for unheard stories deserving to be told and to be told well, by the people who have lived them.
Concrete Cowboy could have just as easily been a documentary about the Black horse-riding community in Philly. But by making it a movie, it allows the audience to open up their hearts in a way that, perhaps, isn't always easy with a documentary.
The additional layers of a fictional story about coming of age and family are relatable and thus we are given a gateway into a community we wouldn't otherwise know about. It's told from the inside out, making it feel authentic despite its fictitious plot.
And we would argue that is one of the main points of movies: to show you a world you might not otherwise have known, whether it's real or fiction, and create a sense of empathy with others. Concrete Cowboy does this well, if sometimes heavy-handedly, but never insincerely.
Concrete Cowboy is now available to watch on Netflix.
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