TIFF: Concrete Cowboy's Cast and Setting Surpass Its Story
Reuben Baron
Concrete Cowboy Idris Elba Caleb McLaughlin
Concrete Cowboy Idris Elba Caleb McLaughlin
Concrete Cowboy, the first feature film by director Ricky Straub, is based off the Middle Grade book Ghetto Cowboy by G. Neri. While the film adaptation contains an authentic amount of cursing and drug usage which will likely recieve an R rating from the MPAA, the fact remains this is a story originally written for middle schoolers. The result is a narrative that won't challenge or surprise adult audiences in the slightest, though it might have stronger appeal to kids if they're allowed to see it.
The things that will keep older viewers engaged in this otherwise standard coming-of-age story about troubled teens and absent fathers are its unique setting and impressive cast. The world of Philadelphia's urban cowboys is a fascinating one, a subculture that carries a certain degree of absurdity (keeping a horse in your apartment is inherently funny) but has deep historic roots and serves as a force for good. Some of the supporting actors in the film are actual cowboys in real life (hyper-authentic casting seems to be something of a trend at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, with the nomads in Nomadland and the prisoners in Night of the Kings).
Concrete Cowboy
Concrete Cowboy
Among the celebrity leads, Idris Elba is the big draw. He's as charismatic as you'd expect as Harp, the leader who's been a great father figure to everyone except his own son (and as dashing as you'd expect on horseback). Caleb McLaughlin steps out of the shadow of Stranger Things and proves he has the seriousness for bigger things as Cole, an angry kid who gets a new lease on life through working the stables and horseback riding. Jharrel Jerome plays Cole's drug dealer friend Smush, a role that doesn't offer the same "wow" factor as his turns in Moonlight and especially When They See Us, but that he's able to embue with thoughtfulness.
Some themes could have been explored deeper or addressed better. The moving story of one cowboy's history with gang violence points to a bigger message about gentrification, an issue that's lightly touched upon throughout the film but not with the depth of Blindspotting or The Last Black Man in San Francisco. It might have been nice to spend a little bit more time on the animal welfare aspect of the story as well. Harp's talk about why he named his son after John Coltrane is meant to convey a positive message about making art out of suffering but maybe edges a bit too close to justifying suffering for the sake of art.
Concrete Cowboy arrives at TIFF without a distributor, and it'll be interesting to see who picks it up and how the release of this film gets handled. It's not an awards contender, and while its distinct hook and straightforward crowdpleasing storytelling could have made for a sleeper hit in theaters, it could easily fade to obscurity in the current cinematic climate. A streaming service, at least, might make it more readily accessible to its actual target audience.
One final question: was the lack of "Old Town Road" on the soundtrack an act of restraint or did they just lack the budget?
Concrete Cowboy stars Idris Elba, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint and Clifford "Method Man" Smith.