This is a poignant, beautifully filmed tale elevated by an excellent cast and a real-life history that has affirmative messages for teenagers and the Black community as a whole.
Concrete Cowboy is not without its sadder moments, though, including a line Elba delivers about being "born with a boot on my neck." He and his son, like Paris and Smush and others, all share a mixed sense of oppression and fear that has led them to make destructive life choices.
But who is a person supposed to grow up to be when he's told all his life to watch his back on the streets, Harp asks? The film visualizes this sense by filming frequently at night, using light intentionally to frame characters or highlight specific attributes.
Music is also used to reflect the experiences of different generations of Black Americans, with harmonica, traditional song, jazz musicians, and rap music employed evocatively.
London-born Elba pulls off playing a Philadelphia cowboy, and while the riders are certainly portrayed as noble, wise, and righteous, the movie doesn't fall into the trap of depicting any of them as perfect. It's the women -- Nessie and Esha -- who provide the pearls of wisdom, like "Hard things come before good things," and "Horses aren't the only thing needing breaking around here."
Harp, a chain-smoker with hard edges and a checkered past, has trouble creating emotional intimacy with his son, and Elba's performance is as much about what he conveys without speaking as his delivered lines. McLaughlin is going to be the real surprise out of this film, though. The gawky kid from Stranger Things is transformed here into a young man trying to appear streetwise, and McLaughlin, who's in nearly every scene, captures Cole's combination of tough and tender.
His character has one foot in two different worlds, the stables and the streets, woven together throughout the film, not always 100% smoothly. McLaughlin ably embodies the teen processing these contrasting experiences, trying to decide his own way, his own conception of manhood and a good life.
End credits include interviews with some real-life Fletcher Street Riders, including some who play themselves in the film.
Read the full review at Common Sense Media.