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By Leah Greenblatt
April 01, 2021 at 11:49 AM EDT
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The healing properties of horses have been a Hollywood mainstay since National Velvet, their tender-hooved redemption tales both a balm for the soul and a seemingly endless fount for feel-good cinema. But for all its familiar themes and archetypes, Concrete Cowboy (on Netflix April 2) still finds fresh ways to update a classic coming-of-age story — not least because it's set not on some bucolic farmland or dusty ranch but in the streets of North Philadelphia, which has nurtured Black equestrians for generations.

Writer-director Ricky Staub brings real-life rhythms and texture to his feature debut by filling the screen with that homegrown scene, and casting several actual riders from the city's Fletcher Street Stables in supporting roles. Though it's the producing presence of names like Lee Daniels and Idris Elba (the latter costars as well) that lends both sheen and star power to the movie's low-key naturalistic style, even as Staub sometimes struggles to balance indie sensibilities with the broader strokes of mainstream storytelling.

The film also serves as a graduation of sorts for Stranger Things' Caleb McLaughlin as Cole, a taciturn kid with a wisp of a mustache and the weight of a world-sized chip on his shoulder. At 15, his delinquencies have already frayed the last nerve of his exasperated single mother (Liz Priestly); if he wants to keep playing the hard man, she tells him, he'll have to go try it on his estranged father (Elba) out east for the summer. By the opening credits they're on the road, and Cole's life in Detroit is a dot in the rear-view mirror.

CONCRETE COWBOY
Credit: Aaron Ricketts/NETFLIX

Harp, it turns out, isn't exactly the domestic type, and making no moves to change that for his son. His fridge is a beer-can wasteland, the "guest bed" a dingy sofa, and there's a speckled stallion named Chuck whinnying softly just off the living room. Even Harp's presence is a privilege: Almost every moment he's not at his sanitation job he's down at the riding club, smoking loosies and telling tales. To fill the void, Cole turns to his childhood friend Smush (Jharrel Jerome), a low-level runner for a local dealer with his own dreams of bigger, riskier paydays; he may not be a great influence, but at least he actually wants to hang out.

It's those long nights out with Smush that finally snap Harp into a more hands-on parenting mode, though it still falls on his fellow members, including Lorraine Toussaint's tough-love neighbor Nessie and a paraplegic rider called Paris (Jamil Prattis) to draw Cole into daily life at the stables. What begins with a literal trial by manure becomes a gateway to connection and a greater sense of the club's proud but endangered history, and Staub smartly lets these moments breathe: The in-jokes and eccentricities, the slow thaw as Cole learns to wrangle creatures even more unsettled than himself.

Elba, with his battered ten-gallon hat and 100-yard stare, remains a hard-nosed enigma for most of it, cagey and remote. But McLaughlin lets every emotion — anger, vulnerability, forced bravado — play across his face, a tender walking nerve center. And even the inclusion of non-actors like Prattis and Ivannah-Mercedes, as Cole's fellow rider and love interest, has a kind of sweet unpolished resonance. (Method Man, a.k.a. Clifford Smith, also has a nice wry turn as a local cop sympathetic to the cause).

Jerome, so devastating in 2019's When They See Us, deserves better than Smush's overly telegraphed destiny allows, and the script (co-penned with Dan Walser from Greg Neri's 2011 YA novel Ghetto Cowboy) often aims for a kind of tidy box-checking that at its best and most lived-in, the narrative doesn't need: By then Concrete has already found four legs to stand on, and its own imperfect kind of grace. Grade: B

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