ST. LOUIS — At some point in our lives, we all want to be a cowboy. Ride up high, wear the hat, and roam free. There's a rebellious and noble attachment to riding a horse while holding onto your hat, as if the hard knocks of life can't touch you if the hat doesn't fly away. A selfless integrity to sharing an experience with your brothers and sisters, all riding side-by-side.
Ricky Staub hit a home run with "Concrete Cowboy" because he cut straight to the heart of that child-like desire to be free and just ride, framing it around the real-life Fletcher Street Riders while presenting a soulfully patient father-son tale. That's because at 2603 W. Fletcher Street in Philadelphia, right down the street from Rocky Balboa in the city of brotherly love, you will find a group of urban horseback riders. They are the beating heart at the center of Staub's heartfelt debut, currently available to stream on Netflix with a single click.
Idris Elba is Harp, the leader of the black cowboys off Fletcher, the city street with a horse stable and park-turned-riding park on it. Harp is the wise old soul with a thousand stories and a weakness, one that shows up in the form of his rule-breaking and estranged son, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin from "Stranger Things"). Since he can't stay in school long enough due to bad behavior and his overworked mother has had enough, Cole's new life becomes Fletcher Street and reconnecting with his old man.
The wise sage in Dan Walser and Staub's writing is not giving you all the answers at once. What did Harp do to become separated from his kid? Why does he show more love for his fellow riders and friends than his own son? It doesn't break the mold on how to make a fire in a popular place like the redemption movie genre, but the little details and performances give off that spark.
Having a pro like Lorraine Toussaint on-hand never hurts your chances at film conviction. She's Nessie, Harp's right eye on that street, governing the block and taking the unprepared Cole under her wing. "Nomadland" fans will appreciate Staub using real-life Fletcher Street Riders for expanded supporting parts in the film. You'll fall in love with Jamil Prattis' Paris, who doesn't let a wheelchair convince him that he can't ride. Ivannah-Mercedes's Esha grabs Cole's eye real quick. Both are the real deal, away from the camera. They offer the film a rugged authenticity that pushes the familiar into thought-provoking grace.
It took me a few scenes to notice McLaughlin, the redhead-smitten member of Netflix's lovable band of misfit personalities-but that's a good thing. Young actors should be rewarded for a disappearing act in a role. Playing Cole allows him to stretch his talents considerably, more than holding his own with heavyweights like Elba and Toussaint. He allows the rage inside a young man who just met his father to both fester and grow at the same time. It's impressive work.
Elba is something else. The actor doesn't have to do much in order to convince, but he finds the rusty heartbreak in Harp's heart, rattling around like yesterday's shrapnel. While he may live free, even from old friends/riders (a very good Method Man) who picked up a badge since, there's a weary speed bump in Harp's past that is shaped like an 18-year-old boy who needs him in order to become a man.
Elba, adopting another American accent that doesn't ring false, knows how to make you root for this man and quietly condemn him. The price of not being perfect yet remembering better is still late than never. It's another grand performance to put into the Elba legacy box. He also produced the film so you can tell there's skin in the game here.
There are memorable moments in the film's well-earned third act, which may tie a few too many neat knots but never stops touching the heart right up to the very end. The filmmaker goes for nuance in key areas and keeps things lively with a kicking soundtrack.
A good element involving jazz is put to use, and Staub's DP, Minka Farthing-Kohl, really knows how to bring the larger-than-life pathos from a young man's perspective. A scene with a wheel-barrel full of horse manure has a vivid series of shots that pulls the viewer in.
Look, you give me a father-son redemption tale soaked in true spices and stocked with a game cast, and I am yours. Ricky Staub didn't swing for the fences, but he still hit a home run with "Concrete Cowboy."