As adolescents, we’re hard pressed to believe that we’re any stretch of the imagination away from adulthood. Stubbornly, we deny ourselves any admittance that we lack the scope and depth of understanding of what it actually means to be an adult. We push ourselves into it so quickly because of the pain of adolescence and the alluring pretense that unflinching clarity comes with maturation. But there’s things we need to discover within ourselves first. Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy tackles this through the lens of a father-son relationship, the volatility of friendship, and personal turmoils that must be laid to rest.
Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is a troubled teen from Detroit. Unsure of how to solve his poor behavior, his mother sends him to spend the summer with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba), in Philadelphia. Cole doesn’t know much about his father, or why he’s been absent, but comes to discover that Harp leads a life largely defined by horses and the community at the stables, a life Cole reluctantly adopts as he strives to find connection and redefine the meaning of home.
Concrete Cowboy has an intense commitment to atmosphere. The story is rooted in the forgotten, often erased history of Black cowboys, and the film connects the age-old tradition by weaving it within modernity. The cinematography is stunning, and through its texture and tone, echoes with ambience and spirit similar to a Walker Evans photograph. The color palette is striking, filled with deep, luscious greens and earthy terracottas that are faithful to the dichotomy of old western traditions within an urban landscape. This juxtaposition is furthered by the film’s musical choices, sometimes leaning heavily into rap and other times relaxing into soulful bluegrass tunes, even combining them at one point.
McLaughlin showcases his most nuanced and intricate performance to date. He does an outstanding job filling the emotional space even through wordlessness, relying only on the poignancy of expression. He is completely central to the story; while Elba and Jharrel Jerome (who plays his childhood friend, Smush) have bouts of screen time, they are only accessories to the larger narrative of Cole. Elba executes a notable performance: working with just a bit of dialogue in the grand scheme of things, his performance is carried by actions executed with subtle reason brewing behind the eyes.
However, most regrettably, Concrete Cowboy is rather boring — so much so that it’s hard to stay focused on the story while your mind wanders and starts questioning how much of the runtime remains. There are a handful of beautifully engaging moments, but all the substance in between falls behind. While the film’s day-by-day approach to storytelling solidifies it in personal realism, it somehow still leaves the film feeling disjointed and dull. Amidst telling two narratives — Cole’s relationship with his father and the community at the stable and Cole’s budding but volatile friendship with Smush — it has trouble establishing flow in the connective tissue, throwing the pacing into tedious territory. We don’t hang with a storyline long enough to dig a meaningful emotional stake. So, when events take place we only feel objective human emotion in our reactions rather than a subjective and integral care for the characters themselves. Even the film’s emotional tagline, “Home ain’t a place, it’s a fam,” while sincere in its sentimentality, feels uncomfortable in its corniness.
The blueprint for Concrete Cowboy is admirable. Relaying the instability of transition, smothered pain, and what we can accomplish with the resources we’ve got, the film is comprised of a heartfelt narrative with empathy at its centre. It explores love, the flawed ways we express it, and the things that hold us back from sharing it. However, it doesn’t abandon the longing hearts it uncovers, also prioritizing how we can build and foster relationships with those closest to us. Paralleling the breaking of a horse with the whitewashed history of Black cowboys and the present-day threat of gentrification, Concrete Cowboy extends beyond the screen through its most touching declaration: that in order to live harmoniously not only with each other, but also within our own minds and hearts, we mustn’t be made to submit, but to know that we are free.