Directed By Ricky Staub
Starring – Idris Elba, Loraine Toussaint, Caleb McLaughlin
The Plot – In this drama inspired by the real-life Fletcher Street Stables, 15-year-old Cole (McLaughlin) is taken to live with his estranged father Harp (Elba) in North Philadelphia. There he discovers the city’s vibrant urban cowboy subculture, which has existed for more than 100 years providing a safe haven for the neighborhood despite the surrounding poverty, violence, and encroachment of gentrification.
Rated R for adult language throughout, drug use and some violence
– Eye opening. Beyond this being an entertaining piece of cinema, it’s also an exceptionally knowledgeable one for the banishing of black cowboys in movies, as well as a war on gentrification that minority riders still face in contemporary times. Like its setting in its fictional counterpart, the real city of Philadelphia is currently under a decades long redevelopment that non-chalantly is removing the very culture and variety that makes a great American city a melting pot where all are accommodated towards living the kind of life that was initially promised in the colorful brochures touting America’s greatness. The American dream fell somewhere off course for this group of riders turned family, and the film informatively illustrates this circumstance in a surrounding world that is constantly deconstructing surrounding them, feeding into an urgency for awareness that is every bit as beneficial for the investment towards the movie’s conflict as it is towards the one persisting beyond silver screen boundaries. With other contemporary films like “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” and “Blindspotting”, it’s very much a gritty slice of life that isn’t always the easiest to chew on, and sheds light on a disposition shared from a group of living, breathing, tax-paying people who are being omitted from the neighborhoods they helped shape, whether they choose to or not.
– Unique casting. First off, the work of Elba and McLaughlin is evidently remarkable, especially for the youthful latter, who sheds his “Stranger Things” typecasting captivity for a challenging role that craves the spotlight. McLaughlin supplants this troubled youth with a barrage of angst and trepidation as a result of a life lived almost entirely on the run from the trouble that constantly follows him, but it’s the underlying heart and longing for the character that is most compelling, supplanting no shortage of depth and balance for the teenage actor that feels years ahead of where it rightfully should be. Beyond this duo, there’s a risky yet rewarding decision to cast a majority of the roles inside of this cowboy clan from real life riders inside of Philadelphia whose connections to the material brings out the poetic nature of their lifestyle. None of them feel lagging in terms of emotional registries deposited towards the integrity of the scenes, and there’s an almost documentary-esque feeling towards they way they attack each long-winded delivery pertaining towards the passion they constantly exude.
– Big breakthrough. For a first time feature length filmmaker, Ricky Staub leaves it all on the field, and unravels a story and presentation that very much compliment each other with each imbalance of tension dissected in between. Staub very much zeroes in on the life of black youths growing up without father’s, and the consequences that stem from such a burden, that are aplenty. Because of such, this leads to many of them turning to drugs and violence as a means towards making something of themselves to defy all odds, but instead magnetize themselves towards more dead ends that leads to more padded statistics along the way. Staub’s film is very much a commentary on all of these things, but also a beacon of light towards the idea of family, and how it sometimes pops up in the places we least expect it, leading to a void from within being satisfyingly filled so that growth can take shape. It’s a candid coming of age portrait, but one that is filled with lessons that any demographic can take with them, and like protagonist Cole, stands as the first of many inevitably big steps for the director that will shape the following acts of his story.
– Complex clarity. Cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl is very much my M.V.P of this entire production, for the way her variety of angles shape emotional resonance in the context of the sequences they accompany. For instance, there are a couple of intense chase sequences throughout the film, complete with sharp twists of camera movement and faithful navigation wherever the characters are directed to move, and considering it’s all done in handheld scheme it makes for an immersive experience that articulates as much of the adrenaline that captivates many satisfying peaks for the film between a slowburn majority. Beyond this, Minka’s desire to leave the camera in areas we wouldn’t expect is a surefire sign of a visionary at play, but cohesively one that brands an unnerving edginess to the film’s aesthetic punch, which often enhances enough anxiety to feel enjoyable without sacrificing the concern for its characters. She very much tests the limits of what is visually coherent and possible in each scene, and crafts no shortage of dizzying devastation in the wake she continuously obliterates us with.
– No artificiality. For what is a shooting star rarity for cinema in 2021, “Concrete Cowboy” uses no computer generation for its animals, or at least none that is obviously meandering towards the integrity of the sequence they accommodate. This is especially surprising in a film with a couple of ambitious feats that these horses pull off in execution, speaking to an old school level of movie making that literally put the horse before the cart, and wielded no shortage of authenticity because of such. Everything simply feels more believable when you consider these real life figures are interacting with these live action horses, garnering an appreciation for the overall production of the film that I highly commend for what they were able to accomplish, and simultaneously subdue in risk for their artistic decision.
– The louder voice. Silence is most evidently the appreciative tool towards illustrating a particular emotion or character reflection in the context of many scenes, and one that often spoke the loudest through some of the more challenging moments thematically throughout the film. This not only plays into the western vibe of the genre classification, complete with many stares and moments of sacrificial longing in tow, but also in the ambiguity of Cole reuniting with a father who he knows so very little about. It helps to illustrate a disdain and loneliness that grants greater and more personally rewarding exposition to me particularly than a long-winded dispersement simply ever could, and never feels boring or contrived for the way it goes to the well so often in commanding such a decision. These certainly help after the moments of intensity, but also help us the audience to constantly keep tabs on Cole’s evolving transformation, which becomes clear the more he opens up, and these moments of silent stinging become fewer along the way.
– Changing perception. Finally musical composer Kevin Matley has won me over with a variety in compositions that synthetically work wonderfully in the context of the genre and vast cultural setting. Because this is a western-first kind of film set in a suburban setting, we get a lot of southern twang paying homage to a bygone era of American civilization, but we also get a lot of hip hop and R&B that equally influences the state of the environment surrounding this family inside of a culture where they are looked at as outsiders. Both extremely opposite directions of music work surprisingly well with one another, and certainly cement one of the more eclectic soundtracks in recent memory, feeling like it’s offering something for everyone while speaking literal volumes to the melting pot culture that never defines Philadelphia as simply just one thing.
– Faulty framing. Easily the biggest problem from Staub’s directing, and one that chaotically undercuts the dramatic sentimentality in one particular subplot is the uneven distribution in time allowance towards the movie’s focus. This is a nearly two hour film that certainly has enough time to simultaneously shape the ingredients of drama that boil towards a scintillating third act, but somehow the dynamic between father and son, and one that the whole film falls back on, is ignored for most of the way. Occasionally, we are granted bread crumbs between them, and it all leads to one intentionally moving scene that the script simply didn’t earn, and feels all the more underwhelming because we the audience haven’t grown with the characters in the same way the script apparently did. Aside from this, in my opinion, there are too many scenes with Cole and best friend Smush that eventually feel derivative around the halfway mark of the movie’s run time. If the script took more from this, and gave to the troubling dynamic between Elba and McLaughlin, it would equally enhance their bonding chemistry, which I felt was noticeably missing from my enjoyment of the film.
– Lazy writing. If you need further proof of Elba’s ability to captivate an audience, look towards this film, with a script that completely detaches from his character, and somehow he manages to turn in a rewarding performance to spite this. Where the disservices start is in the series of pedestrian moments that are practically spoon-fed with such jarring exposition that is so unlike any other character in the movie’s variety. One such scene involves all of the character development for Elba’s Harp, and even worse it’s through a monologue that feels like a series of bullet points for the character. For my money, I wish the film approached his character with a show over tell emphasis, and let him command a majority of the scenes to warrant his name getting top billing on all of the marketing for the movie.
– Tidy finale. Without spoiling anything, I will say that I was more than slightly disappointed in conventionally clean ending for a film that was anything but previously. There are moments of scattered sporadic drama at the start of the third act, but the closing scenes are a series of contrivances and conveniences that are all realized a bit too suddenly to feel natural, and weigh down the last impressions of the movie with predictability of the worst kind. I can overlook minimal things that plug minor plot holes, but I absolutely cannot overlook impending consequences to certain characters, regardless of how many connections they may have that are used to squeeze out one final exposition dump before the credits roll.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-