Coarse and corny, preachy and profane, “Concrete Cowboy” makes for an unusual twist on the “troubled teen needs tough love” tale.
It’s predictable but warm and comforting, R-rated and rough around the edges. “Cowboy” covers very familiar ground — punk learns to be a better man by taking care of horses. And it just pokes along. But with Idris Elba riding tall in the saddle in the lead, as a laid-back but streetwise “Dad he never knew” parenting his son for the first time in his life, nobody should mind coming along for the ride.
“Cowboy,” based on the tween-friendly novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” is set in the oddest piece of “horse country” in these United States, the ramshackle stables and working poor African American row houses of North Philly. That unique milieu means everything to a worn out “Will the kid choose the streets or the stables?” tale.
“Stranger Things” alumnus Caleb McLaughlin plays Cole, expelled (with cops showing up) from his Detroit high school one time too many. Mom (Liz Priestly) has had enough. Stuff this bad attitude, back-talking bad boy into the car and drive his sullen butt down to Philly, to “your father.”
Dumped in front of an empty, ancient townhouse, just him and his clothes stuffed in garbage bags, he meets the neighbor — sage Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint). She’s folksy, a walking homily.
“Hard things come before good things.”
And Dad, Harp (Ebla)? He’s all about the horses he keeps down at the Fletcher St. Stables, horses he rescues and rides, gives riding lessons with and what not. Hell, there’s even one in his living room.
Young Cole gets off to a rough start with the father he resents and barely remembers, but falls right in with a childhood pal Smush (Jharrel Jerome) looking for a new running mate. Smush is Mr. “Business Opportunities” and the very picture of “The Wrong Crowd.” Those new “Js” he hooks his “boul” (Philly slang for “boy”) up with? Must’ve fallen off a truck or something.
As Cole learns hard lessons by day — an absurdly-detailed depiction of mucking out the stalls in the stables — and runs with Smush at night. The confrontation over this flouting of Dad’s “rules” begins in an instant.
It may “take a village” to raise a child. It takes a savvy neighborhood slamming doors in Cole’s face to limit his options and make that kid straighten up.
“Concrete Cowboy” takes a shallow dive into this fascinating world, poor people who somehow scrape together the cash to keep horses on the cheap and off the tax rolls. How those horses got there makes for fascinating campfire (or “can fire”) storytelling. It’s a place where even the neighborhood cop (Method Man), who grew up here, rocks a cowboy hat.
The inside “stress” is the old story of street violence. The outside “stress” on this rebirth story is just as predictable as everything else. Developers want this land. The “big dream” of how to get out, get ahead or what have you, is patently absurd.
The film could use more scenes with Elba, and more with him and horses. And considering its source material and teens interacting with horses, you’d think they’d have gone for a more kid-friendly rating.
But slow pacing and cornball “I’m on my knees at 4 am every day praying for every boy in this neighborhood” dialogue aside, “Concrete Cowboy” is never less than a middling movie you want to spend time with. Every ensemble scene — the neighborhood “peanut gallery” razzing the kid who doesn’t know how to shovel you-know-what, every inner-city kid falls for horses moment, pays dividends.
Staub finds magic in the image of folks on horseback galloping through the sea of grassy vacant lots in a neighborhood barely hanging on.
Every eye-rolling dash of wish-fulfillment fantasy frees this genre picture from the concrete and touches or tickles. Middling movie or not, this one’s well worth a look.
MPA Rating: R for language throughout, drug use and some violence
Cast: Idris Elba, Lorraine Toussaint, Caleb McLaughlin, Jharrel Jerome, Method Man and Liz Priestley
Credits: Directed by Ricky Staub, script by Ricky Staub, Dan Walser, based on the novel “Ghetto Cowboy” by G. Neri. A Neflix release.
Running time: 1:52