PLOT: A troubled youth (Caleb McLaughlin) is sent to live with his estranged father (Idris Elba) who’s part of a group of horse trainers living a cowboy lifestyle in urban Philadelphia.
REVIEW: Like one of my favorite movies out of Sundance last year, CHARM CITY KINGS, CONCRETE COWBOY shines a light on a little-known urban phenomenon, in this case being the real-life, black horse trainers that work on the streets of North Philly. It’s fascinating stuff, with director Ricky Staub taking an interesting docu-drama approach that mixes actors playing roles with some of the real cowboys that try to ply their trade in a city that’s increasingly hostile to them.
The film introduces us to this subculture through the eyes of Caleb McLaughlin’s Cole. A troubled fifteen-year-old, after one fight too many he’s packed off to go live with his estranged father, a tough cowboy named Harp (Idris Elba) who brings him into this world. A strong vehicle for McLaughlin, in a role far removed from “Stranger Things”, this is a solid slice of life film that, despite some overly familiar beats, is entertaining.
It’s pretty incredible to see how these cowboys have managed to ply their trade on the streets of Philly, forming a bond that’s tough to break, although city zoning means their stables are getting harder and harder to maintain. Nevertheless, they take pride in their work and take great care of their horses, but it can’t be denied that some of the most compelling stuff comes from the real-life cowboys playing supporting roles, such as the wheelchair-bound Paris, who shows Cole the ropes.
Staub, for his part, goes for a lyrical approach, and if I have any complaints about this its that the filming is almost too pretty and poetic. The film is also bogged down by an overly familiar side-plot, where Cole is tempted by some fast money from a former friend (MOONLIGHT’s Jharrel Jerome- who’s charismatic even if the role is thin), putting him at odds with his dad. McLaughlin has a very low-key, naturalistic style that meshes well with Elba’s, and seems like a major leading man in the making.
Idris Elba, who looks every bit the classic cowboy, is excellent as the taciturn Harp, who’s turned away from a life of crime to find meaning as a cowboy. He’s cold and distant to his son, but the role feels authentic, and something is refreshing about how underplayed their relationship is. I also really enjoyed Method Man, who’s grown into a great actor over the years, as Harp’s former buddy, who’s become a cop, meaning the cowboys no longer trust him, although he still tries to help them out and put Cole on the right path.
While CONCRETE COWBOY is familiar, it’s still an enjoyable, relatively family-friendly urban drama. The cowboy life in Philly is pretty compelling stuff, and while part of me wishes this had gone down a less typical route in telling their story, this is well worth watching.