⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Stars: Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin
Writers: Ricky Staub, Dan Walser
Director: Ricky Staub
Streaming on Netflix
Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival
The best movies show you things you never dreamed of in places you’ve never been. And that doesn’t just apply to science fiction films: Witness Concrete Cowboy, a father-son drama that unfolds amidst the cowboys, cowgirls, and galloping steeds of…North Philadelphia.
The horses graze on empty lots by day, sleep in century-old stables by night, and enjoy regular gallops through the mean streets of North Philly with their African-American riders holding the reins. Commuters riding their SEPTA buses down Fletcher Street do a double take when the sight of a cantering cowboy catches their eye — the kind of urban dissonance director Ricky Staub (Snow White and the Hunter) returns to time and again in this most unusual — and unusually affecting — film.
Caleb McLaughlin (Netflix’s Stranger Things) stars as Cole, a troubled young man whose edge-of-lawlessness street life has driven his despairing mother to send him to live with her ex-husband, Harp (Idris Elba), an inner city cowboy whose tough love, while hard to watch, is of course just what the lad needs.
It appears we’re not going to get Idris Elba as the next James Bond, which is too bad. But if that means he’s going to make more heartfelt, intimate films like Concrete Cowboy, that’s a big win for all of us. Here he subdues his London airs to create in Harp the richly textured portrait of a dad whose personal biography includes an unseen, unseemly past that he has managed to redeem through his equestrian obsession. Because that transformation occurred before the film begins, we never see it — but neither has his son, who knows his dad only as the loser who abandoned his mother.
While father and son work out their intimate issues, there is a larger storm brewing: Hipsters from Philly’s downtown are blowing winds of gentrification to the north, and developers suddenly want to gentrify the stable blocks, erected in the early 1900s to house the city’s work horses. On one hand, the move seems heartless and mercenary; on the other, as Staub and his cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl maneuver their camera through the dark, crumbling labyrinth of stalls, it seems they should have fallen down on their own a good half-century ago.
Along the way, the narrative pauses to introduce us to a collection of real-life urban cowboys as colorful as any wagon train crew John Ford ever mustered — with the added bonus that Staub has enlisted real-life, big-hatted denizens of Philly’s Fletcher Street Stables to play fictional versions of themselves.
As far as family dramas go, Concrete Cowboy doesn’t really rustle up that many surprises. Yet we hang on every sentimental clip-clop, drinking in the film’s earnest performances and its distinctive glimpse of a big-city lifestyle that we can’t help but fear is even now riding off into the sunset.
Featured image: Netflix
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now