Express@TIFF: Concrete Cowboy coasts on the real warmth of its characters
Updated: September 16, 2020 11:16:44 pm
The shepherd is such a ‘Western’ fixture in our imagination that leads to mistrust to know that the tradition of urban horsemen in North Philadelphia is over a hundred years old. Ricky Staub’s concrete cowboy, a gruesome, seasoned ex-thief-horseman starring Idris Elba, and his enchanted son as Caleb McLaughlin, gives us a world we didn’t have: a city in the middle. Terrible shelter. The black residents of Fletcher Street love their animals, tending to each other.
YA novels by Greg Neary are familiar varieties teased from the ghetto from which the film is adapted. A father who has no idea how he can be; A son takes away the old resentment. The young boys, who work for drug lords, hope to get out of poverty, only to find that once is not out. And a redemption arc that gathers all these disparate elements together.
Fifteen-year-old Cole (McLaughlin, Stranger Things) finds himself immersed at the door of Daddy Harps (Elba), but is at the wrong address if he was expecting a warm, welcoming father. He finds an empty fridge, a messy house, and a man who has more to say to his friends than every son gathers at the neighborhood campfire. Soon, Cole is picking up threads with cousin Smush (Jharell Jerome, Moonlight), a small crewman in the wheel of a local drug runner. Will Cole tip over drug dealing and quick money because Smush makes it look so shiny? Or will he do it the hard way, and help find himself, Harp will do the same?
We know how things will pan, of course. But there is freshness in the way the film is written. For example, Cole walks into an unexpected roommate at Harp’s house (it’s a horse), or the way he learns how to wear a stables (never wear new shoes), or, crucially, his entry. Swindle in But the humble gang hangs out with Harp (a bright-eyed wheelchair user giving him the nod), and the other elements that occur in a father-son reunion film, slowly done with a touch of humor and pathos Go.
Smartly, the film abstains from purity. A blow-out between Harp and Cole, makes you wonder if this is the end. But then Harp talks about his love for what appears to be a tangible, jazz legend John Cotrain. This is where Cole’s name comes from. Such a moment is related to tear-jerking, but here it is done with fragility, both father and son learning to bend into each other from this moment.
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Horses can be trope-y as therapy. The inner cities of drugs, crime and murders are another. But concrete cowboys emphasize their characters’ actual warmth for each other and their love for their horses. Mainstream Hollywood has not really featured the Black Cowboys this way: Here, Elba, McLaughlin and others made their way out of trouble, head high.
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