Never underestimate the power of a novel setting to revitalize a tired plotline. “Concrete Cowboy,” arriving on Netflix after touring last fall’s festivals, tells of a teenager who’s heading down the wrong path in life until he gets shipped off to a father he barely knows and oh-so-gradually learns self-respect. You can practically tick off the life lessons on your fingers as they arrive, yet none of that matters, because the film takes place among the Black cowboys of Philadelphia.
The what? The men and women who ride horses out of rundown urban stables in the city’s Strawberry Mansion neighborhood and elsewhere are descended from the hostelers and grooms of pre-automobile American society; their grandparents cared for horses and so do they. “Concrete Cowboy” is a fictional tale — adapted from G. Neri’s young adult novel “Ghetto Cowboy” — that avails itself of real locations and real urban cowpokes in the supporting cast.
The film is ably directed by Ricky Staub, making his feature debut, and executive produced by Idris Elba, who also stars as Harp, the terse father to the movie’s troubled young hero Cole (Caleb McLaughlin, one of the kids from “Stranger Things” in a radically different role). Cole has screwed up in his Detroit high school too many times and, despairing, his mother (Liz Priestley) drives him all the way to Philly and leaves him with her estranged ex-husband. Right off, Cole notices something different about his father’s living arrangements: There’s a horse in the living room.
A reconnection with an old friend (Jharrel Jerome of “Moonlight”) who’s trying to break into the local crime scene offers predictable temptations and follows a familiar arc, as do scenes of Cole starting at the bottom (literally) by mucking out the stables. There’s a horse nobody can seem to ride except the kid — the scene where he does so is a honey, a spooky nighttime circle of community. And there’s a girl, Esha (Ivannah Mercedes, one of the local riders), but the romance is pleasingly low-key. The best scenes in “Concrete Cowboy” bump along at an engaged trot — the speed of life.
Although there are neighborhood barbecues and horse races in grassy vacant lots, the movie conveys the precariousness of the Fletcher Street Stables’ existence, with city bureaucrats and animal welfare officials threatening to close it all down and gentrification chipping its way toward the stables block by block. Elba’s Harp is presented as the most forthright keeper of the flame, but the presence of Mercedes, Jamil Prattis, Albert C. Lynch Jr., and other Philadelphia riders gives “Concrete Cowboy” an authenticity that anchors it in history and the soul of an actual place. Best of all are the moments when a scene right out of a classic western — a cowboy funeral, a campfire serenade, one last round-up — is allowed to play out amidst struggling lives and potholed streets. The film is a shrine to a hardy subculture, its people, and the animals they love. Long may they run.
Directed by Ricky Staub. Written by Staub and Dan Walser, based on a novel by G. Neri. Starring Caleb McLaughlin, Idris Elba. Available on Netflix. R (language throughout, drug use, some violence).