There's an awful lot to admire about Concrete Cowboy, Netflix's latest drama, released on Friday, which brings the lives and culture of African-American horse riders in the heart of Philadelphia to a worldwide audience.
Based on Greg Neri's book Ghetto Cowboy, the film tells the fictionalised story of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, a real non-profit organisation that has preserved the century-long tradition of black cowboys and horsemanship in a city environment. Our way into this illuminating world comes courtesy of Cole, 15, from Detroit, who is sent to live with his estranged father in the City of Brotherly Love.
This role gives Caleb McLaughlin, 19, the chance to showcase his dramatic range and step out of the shadow of Stranger Things, the sci-fi mega hit he also starred in. Throughout Concrete Cowboy, he displays a wide and complex array of emotions – from tough, to misunderstood, to vulnerable and then compassionate – in a disciplined manner.
McLaughlin's transformative turn is all the more impressive when you consider the top-notch acting talent that he goes toe to toe with. This includes Idris Elba as Cole's no-nonsense father Harp, who shows more care and love to his fellow urban cowboys and horses than his son.
First-time writer and director Ricky Staub does a sensational job of not overdoing the fractured dynamic between father and son.
At the same time, alongside cinematographer Minka Farthing-Kohl, the pair shoot the streets in a lusciously atmospheric style, which really helps to emphasise Cole’s battle.
While Cole slowly becomes more and more enamoured with life as an urban cowboy, he's also pulled into the world of drug dealing after reconnecting with old friend Smush. However, this element doesn't work as well as Cole's time at the stables. Staub – who also co-wrote the movie – is not able to inject these scenes with any kind of tension or menace.
This isn't enough to disrupt Concrete Cowboy, though, which still manages to be affecting, thanks to the performances of McLaughlin and Elba. Sure, you'd probably like to see more of Elba, but when the British star is on screen he's so commanding, it immediately makes up for his absence. It also helps that the whole ensemble gives the film an authenticity and originality that makes it thoroughly captivating.
Staub wisely mixes local actors, and even non-actors who are part of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club, with the likes of Moonlight's Jharrel Jerome, Orange is the New Black's Lorraine Toussaint and The Wire's Method Man.
On the whole, Concrete Cowboy establishes Staub as a filmmaker to take note of, as well as proving these are the kinds of stirring films Netflix should continue to create.