Sunday, January 16

Concrete Cowboy review – Idris Elba gears up for a powerful father-son drama | Toronto Film Festival 2020

IDris Elba has always been a charismatic on-screen presence, so it’s no wonder she has a very fine figure on horseback. Elba is the star producer of this emotionally heartfelt, unusual, if somewhat sucrose urban western. Ricky Staub, director of several highly regarded short films, makes his feature film debut here, and with screenwriter Dan Walser has adapted Greg Neri’s 2011 novel Ghetto Cowboy, which focuses on the urban-equestrian tradition of Philadelphia, where The Stables of Fletcher Street have nurtured young riders for a long time.

The Hollywood image of cowboys is white people with stetsons strolling through a huge open field. This movie shows us that that’s not the whole story: there is an alternative African-American tradition. Caleb McLaughlin (who plays Lucas in Stranger Things) is Cole, a very troubled boy in Detroit who has been expelled from school for fighting. His now desperate mother sends him to live with his estranged father in North Philadelphia; It is about Harp, played by Elba, who can be seen mostly gathered around a campfire with his friends at night, for everyone as if they were riding the mountain range in a different century than this one.

Harp runs the urban stables, with live real horses on the city streets, and is a difficult, gruesome, and suspicious man, shocked to realize that he is being asked to step up and face his parental responsibilities. And he has a lot on his plate: developers and gentrifiers are ready to buy his stables.

As for Cole, he himself is amazed to see that one of these horses actually lives in Harp’s ramshackle house – a situation with comical possibilities that this basically serious movie doesn’t want to pursue. Cole doesn’t like the discipline of having to clean the stables and doesn’t like being yelled at by Harp (Elba’s husky, booming voice always so distinctive), so he finds himself dating his old childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), a superficially sympathetic and unreliable boy who’s into serious gang stuff. Will the moody and vulnerable Cole go down the road of drugs and crime with Smush? Or will he take the more difficult path of working with horses, the noble beasts that offer a kind of miraculous redemption and a renewed relationship with his father?

Well, there are some classic horse moments here, and I’m a fan of them, including a scene where Cole must recapture and pacify one of the toughest horses ever to escape. Just seeing Elba, McLaughlin and the rest of the cast riding horses through the streets of North Philadelphia, riding through that harsh urban landscape, is enough to make you smile.

The shortcoming of the film is how the Smush figure is to be treated. Ultimately, the film seems to want to claim Smush, not just as a troubled child whose fate could have been that of many others, but also as someone with a connection to horses, which has barely been established by the rest of the world history.

This is an old-fashioned father-son story and it’s no worse for it, but there’s something a bit witty and tenuous about the way the story is resolved.

Concrete Cowboy premieres April 2 on Netflix.

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