Sometimes, filmmakers just pack too much stuff into their movies, hoping to attract viewers by offering a little something for everyone. If it’s good stuff, that pushes the plot(s) along, all power to it. Think of “Pulp Fiction,” “Boogie Nights,” “Nashville,” “Snatch.” They worked well, with plotlines and characters never getting in the way of one another. That each of those movies was, in its own way, kinda crazy, also helped.
But multi-narrative films don’t have to be eccentric, or even complicated. “Concrete Cowboy” is based on the 2011 novel “Ghetto Cowboy,” whose author, G. Neri, based it on some real-life city cowboys who have run the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia for the past couple of decades.
So, how dense is “Concrete Cowboy” in plotting and characterization? It’s, in turn, a realistic urban drama, a colorful slice of history, an intimate look at a difficult father-son relationship, and an appealing yet uncompromising coming-of-age story. And it has lots of horses! In the city!
The father is Harp (Idris Elba), the head cowboy at the Fletcher Street Stables, a rundown but much-loved Black enterprise that tries to keep inner city kids in Philadelphia away from gangs and drugs by teaching them to ride and to work with and get to know all about horses. He’s a serious and driven man who’s not exactly showing all of his cards.
The son is 15-year-old Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, Lucas in “Stranger Things”), who lives with his mom in Detroit, is making a habit out of getting in trouble at school, and has just been expelled. At the end of her rope, mom orders him into the car, drives to Philadelphia, and drops him off with estranged Harp, for the summer.
“Mama, please don’t leave me here,” pleads Cole, crying. But mom, also crying, drives off. And Cole enters a new world, where his dad’s place is a wreck, the refrigerator has only Coke and beer, and Chuck the Horse is wandering around in the living room. Cole and Harp don’t really know each other, and at this point, viewers don’t know much about either of them.
Then those other characters and situations come flooding in. Teenaged Smush (Jharrel Jerome) is a street kid and old acquaintance of Cole’s. Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint) is a cantankerous neighbor who runs the stables. Leroy (Method Man) is a former cowboy who’s now a cop. Boo is a wild horse who gets along with no one ... except horse-fearing Cole.
The disparate stories that eventually develop into a single one don’t have any sort of sprawling feel to them, and the film maintains a subdued atmosphere, sticking with Cole as he adapts to his new routine.
At first, he just wants to go back home, then Smush offers him some “business opportunities.” A bad start with Dad - who doesn’t want Smush around - leads to Cole sleeping in the stables, where he meets Boo. But he’s still seen as the outsider who’s been plopped down into a group of people - the folks at the stables - who have become a tight-knit family, who love their work and love being with each other.
The film evolves into an insightful look at very different sorts of inner-city life - one revolving around drugs, the other around horses. It’s also an ensemble piece, with captivating characters everywhere you look, some effectively drawn backstories for a couple of them, and a realistic, natural feel to every performance
Though it earned an R-rating for its salty language, “Concrete Cowboy” works wonderfully as a family movie, one with a message of self-empowerment and a bit of an edge. There’s some dramatic overkill involving the future of the stables in the third act, and an event referred to as “the cookout” will remind action movie fans of climactic races in the “Fast & Furious” franchise (with sleek horses instead of souped-up cars). But the film also has a full-of-heart ending and a great credits sequence with speeches by some of the real Fletcher Street riders.