“Concrete Cowboy” is Compelling Counterculture Yarn

It’s only natural for fans of Stranger Things to wonder what the kids have been up to, especially with Season Four still languishing in the Upside Down. Well, obviously, they’re no longer kids. So, it remains to be seen how their adolescence will be incorporated into the storyline once the show finally picks up (or wraps up). But for now, it’s a thrill seeing some of them landing outside projects. Millie Bobby Brown, for one, was always destined to head that route. Just last year, she landed Enola Homes as the titular sleuth. And now, following “Eleven’s” footsteps in top-billing a Netflix outing is “Lucas”.

Now 19, Caleb McLaughlin blazes in Concrete Cowboy, only his second feature but already a substantial role. Moreover, it became his instant ticket to Telluride and TIFF. He’s simply a revelation as Cole, a perpetually out-of-school Detroit teen exiled to Philadelphia by his weary mother to live with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba, who co-produced along with Lee Daniels and many others). Though resentful at first, Cole’s resistance soon makes way for fascination, especially when he discovers Daddy’s secret. Turns out, Harp’s a member of a clandestine group of urban cowboys who wander the streets on horseback and keep their stallions in an abandoned warehouse-turned-makeshift stable. This neither sits well with neighbors nor with local cop Leroy (rapper Method Man). Nevertheless, Cole becomes intent to learn their ways, especially when he discovers that he’s quite the horse whisperer himself.  

Still, the road to redemption isn’t all that consistent for Cole. He’s still in touch with his older cousin, Smush (Moonlight’s Jharrel Jerome), a drug addict and the true instigator behind Cole’s wayward exploits. This fuels a frequent tug-off-war between Cole’s newfound sense of purpose and his sordid past, much to both parents’ concern.

Not everything in the core father-and-son reconnection plot feels original. Most of the freshness, really, comes from the undeniable chemistry between McLaughlin and Elba, as well as the truly intriguing subject matter. In weaving this captivating yarn, first time director Ricky Staub adapted Greg Neri’s novel Ghetto Cowboy. The book, in turn, took inspiration from the Fletcher Street Urban Ride Club, members of which appear in the cast. The latest incarnation of the club was formed by Ellis Ferrell in 2004 and continued what their predecessors started over a century ago, which is to unite black urban cowboys and preserve a cherished counterculture. The advocacy sure is felt, but the film is never preachy. How their cause melds with a young man’s story of reformation and discovery is what makes this a compelling ride. You’d be glad to be aloft.

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