Ricky Staub’s “Concrete Cowboy” nearly works because of the strength of its cast, including great turns from future stars Caleb McLaughlin and Jharrel Jerome, two young men who really earned their most attention for Netflix projects—“Stranger Things” and “When They See Us”—but who clearly can hold the big screen too. The young talents are balanced by great veterans, including Idris Elba, Method Man, and Lorraine Toussaint. There’s something that’s just enjoyable about watching such a strong ensemble bounce off each other, but Staub’s script doesn’t give them enough to work with, resorting to obvious tropes and thin dialogue when this story needed something more genuine. There are enough stand-out moments, mostly ones in which the characters are just hanging out around the campfire and chatting, but the coming-of-age story feels manufactured at every turn.
McLaughlin plays Cole, a Detroit teen whose mom has had enough of his shit. She decides a change of scenery is in order, shuffling him off to Philly, where his dad lives, Elba’s Harp. It turns out there’s a group in North Philly called Fletcher Street, an urban horse community of horse riders and trainers. In a smart move, Staub uses several real members of the community in his cast, and they’re all surprisingly good performers too. The writer/director is clearly skilled in directing performance, and there’s a version of “Concrete Cowboy” that doesn’t bother at all with the coming-of-age story and just focuses on the daily existence of this unique corner of the country.
That’s not this movie. Cole and Harp butt heads from the beginning, as dad is clearly the kind of loner more interested in horses than people, and his son ends up reuniting with a local kid named Smush (Jerome), who is more engaged in the crime scene in Philly than the horse one. Shovel literal shit with dad or ride the high life with Smush? McLaughlin really does a very good job of selling a traditional narrative, but Staub’s dialogue rings false a few too many times. Someone literally says, “Hard things come before good things” in one scene, which I think is the motto of all coming-of-age stories, and another goes as far as to verbalize, “Horses ain’t the only thing that need breaking here.” You don’t say.