Despite the similarities in name “Concrete Cowboy,” the new drama starring Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin of “Stranger Things” as father and son and now on Netflix, has nothing to do with “Urban Cowboy,” the 1980 John Travolta cheese fest. This is a deeply felt, if slightly predictable coming- of-age story set against the backdrop of the urban cowboy subculture of north Philadelphia.
Fifteen-year-old Cole (McLaughlin) is a troubled kid. Constantly in trouble at his Detroit school, his mother has had enough. “You’re going to drown,” she tells him before sending him off to spend the summer in Philadelphia with his estranged father Harp (Elba), a tough, old-West style cowboy who lives and rides at a century-old African American horsemanship institution called the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club.
Cole, who is forced to bunk in the stables upon arrival, is quickly put to work, cleaning up after the horses, learning the discipline that comes with hard work. It’s a learning curve for the young man, but as rider Esha (Ivannah Mercedes) says, “Horses ain’t the only thing that need breaking around here.”
Threatening the stability Cole finds at Fletcher Street is Smush (Jharrel Jerome), a low-level drug dealer who points the way to any easier method of making money.
Loosely based on book “Ghetto Cowboy” by Greg Neri, “Concrete Cowboy” is a western but told from a different point of view than we usually see. Director Ricky Staub does a commendable job at building the world Harp and Cole inhabit. Their way of life is an anachronism in the big city but the greater purpose of providing opportunities to the area’s youth is timeless.
It’s an interesting and vibrant subculture that forms the backdrop of the father/son relationship that feels like something we’ve seen before. Cole wants approval from his father, even though he’s not yet ready to forgive him for the absence that has left a gaping hole in his life. We’ve seen that dynamic before but rarely on horseback.
Elba is the above-the-title star but his lived-in depiction of Harp takes second place to McLaughlin. As a young man in need of saving he brings vulnerability and innocence but also the rebellious streak of someone who is still figuring out who he is. It’s nicely crafted work, ably supported by a cast of pros, like Cliff “Method Man” Smith as a local, sympathetic cop and Lorraine Toussaint and non-actors like Jamil Prattis, a wheelchair bound Fletcher Street stables fixture who brings authenticity and charisma to his role.
In the end “Concrete Cowboy” isn’t simply a father/son reunion tale. It’s something more, an ode to a specific way of life with universal messages of the value of community.