I have found a love for the modern Western in the past few years. From direct reimaginings of classics like True Grit to genre blends like Bone Tomahawk, modern cowboy stories are making a grand return. The latest entry into the chronicles of the 21st century rancher is Concrete Cowboy, the feature debut of Ricky Staub. Concrete Cowboy also serves as a great coming of age film, joining the ranks of films like Premature in terms of expanding how Black adolescence is chronicled and conveyed on screen. Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) is a teenager sent away to live with his estranged father in Philadelphia. As he returns to the people he once knew in the place where he grew up, Cole discovers a subculture of urban cowboys and finds a new side of himself. There’s more to this western than hats and horses, as a subplot finds Cole crossing paths with Smush (Jharrel Jerome), an old friend from his childhood. Smush is attempting to buy his way out of Philly by moving drugs and flipping ranches, and intends to bring Cole along for the ride. But as Cole gets closer to his father and the old souls on Fletcher Street, he has to decide whether or not to leave again.
The film’s cinematography is a sight to behold. The lighting is particularly fantastic, the orange street lights at night are an immersive contrast to the film’s rugged atmosphere. Concrete Cowboy is at its best in its scenes of pure cinematic euphoria, with passionate conversations around campfires or underscored by sizzling barbecues letting the viewer laugh along with the various members of this community. The inclusion of real Philadelphia horse handlers in the cast, complete with interviews with each of them as the credits roll, gives the film an authentic feel it otherwise wouldn’t have. All of these characters form into one collective spirit, the spirit that keeps a small subculture alive. They speak of gentrification, both physically and historically, but are all more keen to celebrate their present than dwell on their past.
Caleb McLaughlin gives a vulnerable and naturalistic performance as Cole. The same can be said for Idris Elba, who disappears into the role of Harp, a community leader struggling to be a proper father. Luckily he has some help from stellar performers like Lorraine Toussaint and Method Man, as well as the carefully placed real-life cowboys I mentioned earlier. They all have a synergy that makes sitting back and laughing with them just as powerful as seeing Cole’s journey. But it’s Cole’s scenes with Smush that paint the most compelling picture. Smush has an important dream of being self-made, and his compassion toward Cole after years of being apart casts a shadow over him. Harp takes Cole to task on his friendship with Smush, begging his son to stay on the straight and narrow.
The two lives Cole is forced to choose between—one present, and one only theoretical—are both fully realized in their beauties and flaws. The Stables come under controversy as word of malnourished horses gets out, and a deal Smush tries to make goes bad. Both put Cole in the sights of police officer Leroy (Method Man), a friend and supporter of his father who is forced to put his foot down when the bad press inevitably comes. It is in these tribulations where Minka Farthing-Kohl’s cinematography truly shines. The camera can never quite capture enough in a way that’s fascinating to watch, the audience often put in the place of an observer or an active participant through a tight foot chase or a risky wrangling of a lost horse. We feel Cole’s journey because we are placed in it in its most important moments. The audience is put in aside the rest of the cowboys, cheering Cole on and pushing him forward as he grows. It’s a brilliant way to immerse the viewer in the narrative, allowing us to both identify with Cole and root for him.
Concrete Cowboy is a fantastic coming of age film, one that displays Black struggle and joy in equal measure. Ricky Staub deserves a bright career ahead of him, and I’m glad that this film is making the rounds in the festival circuit. We need so many more films like this.