The concrete in “Concrete Cowboy” surrounds the grazing pasture of the Fletcher Street Stables, a real-life, century-old institution in North Philadelphia. That’s where a tradition of inner-city Black horsemanship survives under threat of gentrification in this coming-of-age drama streaming on Netflix. The film, a work of fact-inspired fiction with an excellent cast that includes several nonprofessionals, was a labor of love, and there is lots to love about it—moments of fleeting beauty that come and go without emphasis, as if caught on the fly. There’s also a lack of narrative clarity that might have pulled together the compelling characters and their pungent recollections into a more resonant whole. Still, this is the feature debut of a distinctive filmmaker, Ricky Staub, who identified intensely with his subject, and it was shot by a cinematographer, Minka Farthing-Kohl, with a taste for poetic images and the technique to bring them to light.
The story starts briskly. Fifteen-year-old Cole (a fine performance by Caleb McLaughlin) faces expulsion from his Detroit high school; he can’t control his violent behavior. His mother, Amhale (Liz Priestley), can’t control him, so she sends him to Philadelphia to spend the summer with his estranged father, Harp (Idris Elba), a scruffy urban cowboy who figures prominently in the Fletcher Street Stables community. Doesn’t cowboyhood, strictly speaking, require the presence of cows? Maybe it does, but Harp and his friends draw a direct line between themselves and the Black cowhands of the Old West, while the screenplay, adapted by the director and Dan Walser from the novel “Ghetto Cowboy” by G. Neri, frames its uncommonly rich setting in a familiar drama of tough love, anger and forgiveness.
As soon as his son arrives, Harp turns him over to the stable staff so he can learn the value of hard work. Along the way Cole connects not only with the father he hadn’t known, and with a supposedly untrainable horse, but, for the first time, with an extended family—the riders, trainers, stable hands and assorted neighbors who are glad to take him in. At the same time, he secretly explores an alternative life of criminality with a drug-dealer cousin, Smush (Jharrel Jerome), who leads him into a lurid subplot that seems to have been lifted from another movie, and not a good one.
Choices, choices. If you choose to watch “Concrete Cowboy,” it should be because of the horse-stable setting and the beguiling people in it. Many fiction films ride roughshod over their backgrounds. These filmmakers were clearly enchanted by the history of the place, and what was left of it when location shooting began. Many films try to whip up excitement with a hurtling pace. This one dawdles so agreeably, and observes so well, that it reminded me of the wonderful 2002 comedy “Barbershop”—not because both films have predominantly Black casts, but because both are about community, cultural continuity and the pleasures of telling, and hearing, good stories.
Cole hears some of those stories, and learns the fine art of shoveling horse manure, from Paris (Jamil “Mil” Prattis). “You ain’t rakin’ no leaves, man,” Paris tells his new mucker, as he calls him. (The Augean stables never looked so grimy. Neither did Hercules.) Mr. Prattis’s performance struck me as a study in the sort of droll understatement best exemplified by Brad Pitt, but it turns out he’s one of the locals, not an actor at all; so much for blithe assumptions.