There’s nothing innovative about the plot of Concrete Cowboy. The ‘troubled teen learns to better himself by caring for an animal’ trope is very well worn, with shining beacons such as Kes and Old Yeller really making their mark. But writer/director Ricky Staub’s movie is nevertheless well worth watching, because it’s hard to tire of redemption tales, and this one shines a light on a little-known community: black cowboys in Philadelphia.
This isn’t just my ignorance; the movie spells it out. Most of us don’t know black cowboys exist; they’ve been whitewashed out of history. In fact, we don’t expect to see poor black Philadelphians on horseback at all, but there they are, eking out a living from their urban stables.
Caleb McLaughlin is Cole, and he’s in bother. Again. Expelled from yet another Detroit school, Cole is running out of options. His mum, Amahle (Liz Priestley), knows she needs to do something radical. And so, despite his protests, she packs Cole’s bags and drives him to Philadelphia, telling him he has to spend the summer with his dad, Harp (Idris Elba). Cole is not at all keen on the idea, especially when he realises just how unconventional Harp’s living arrangements are. Sleeping on a sofa isn’t such a big deal, but sharing a room with a horse is beyond the pale.
It’s not easy. Harp is kind but very strict, and Cole doesn’t take well to discipline. And there is temptation in Philadelphia too, in the form of Cole’s childhood friend, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who’s risking everything by double-crossing the drug dealers he works for. Cole goes along for the ride – and for the fancy new trainers – but he soon realises the danger he’s in…
But he doesn’t need to follow Smoosh, because he has a horse, Boo: a wild, unbroken animal that only he can get close to. What will he do?
McLaughlin delivers a fine performance; it’s easy to empathise with the moody teenager he portrays, to understand his conflicting emotions. The ensemble cast are great too, notably Lorraine Toussaint as stable owner, Nessie, and Ivannah-Mercedes as love interest, Esha. But my favourite thing about this film is the exposé of the cowboys’ precarious situation. They rarely own their stables; as renters, they’re vulnerable to eviction, if a landowner can make money by selling to property developers as an area gentrifies, for example. It seems so wrong that their entire way of life can be threatened like this, and so short-sighted. All Smush wants is to earn enough money to move to the countryside and live on a ranch; if people are denied opportunities, of course they turn to crime.
So, no, it’s not original, and yes, you can see every plot turn a mile away, but Concrete Cowboy is still a fascinating watch.