Cole’s mother, Amahle, has reached a tipping point. She’s a single mom who loves her son. And she puts every ounce of herself into giving him a safe and happy home. But Cole isn’t the type of teen who would know happy if it bit him. Cole would rather fight and scrap and lash out at everything and everyone around him.
So when his school calls to say that he’s being suspended for yet another tussle, Amahle makes a hard decision. It’s time to put Cole and his clothes in the car, and drive him out to his father in Philly. Let the boy spend the summer there and see if anything changes.
Toting his stuff in a couple garbage bags, Cole ends up on his father’s doorstep, a man he hasn’t seen for at least 10 years. But that’s not the worst of it. Cole has also stepped into the bizarre world of the Fletcher Street Stables: a span of row houses surrounding a stretch of grass and a broken-down stable.
And there are actual horses in it.
In the heart of the city.
In fact, Cole’s dad, Harp, keeps a horse in a makeshift pen in his living room! And that huge animal isn’t all that far away from the couch that is assigned as Cole’s new bed.
Cole has no desire to stay there, but he has no choice. He hasn’t got any money. And not a chance of a ride back home to Detroit. So, it’s share a couch with a horse, or sleep on the curb.
This is looking like it might be a very long summer.
Harp and his ex-wife, Amahle, obviously both love their son. In fact, Harp tells Cole a story from his past that illustrates how important having a son was to him. That said, Harp initially comes off as a hard taskmaster who essentially tells Cole to walk the straight and narrow or get out. Cole doesn’t always listen; several times, he reaps the natural consequences of his stubborn choices. And he pays in several negative ways for that choice. But eventually Harp’s tough love, mixed with his own personal sacrifice, teaches Cole to take responsibility and reshapes the choices he makes in positive ways.
Harp and others at the stable share a repeated mantra with Cole: “Hard things before good things.” And they encourage each of the young people in the group that that’s the only way to gain the things of most value. Someone makes it clear to Cole that “The past is not the present,” encouraging him to be present in the moment.
Harp is dedicated to the other cowboys of Fletcher Street. And he takes the time to create a special saddle so that a crippled fellow cowboy can ride again. Harp sums up his feeling about that sense of community to Cole and others, saying, “Home ain’t a place, it’s a fam.”
Harp’s next-door neighbor, Nessie, also has a big stake in the Fletcher Street Stables. But in addition, she also tells Cole that she gets up each morning at 4:00 to start praying for all the prodigal boys on their block. When Cole suggests that he is a reformed prodigal, Nessie replies, “Nah. You ain’t eat that pig slop yet.”
A woman sings “Draw me nearer, Savior, draw me near” at a funeral in the local church.
Some young women at a party wear formfitting tops. Cole and a young girl at the stables named Esha form a friendship. Eventually, it becomes a little more, and the two kiss.
Street violence involves people being grabbed, beaten and pistol whipped. Someone is also shot and killed (on the orders of a drug boss). We see people bloodied and a dead body slumping out of a car in a parking lot.
Paris, a crippled man from the stables, tells of his regrets about foolishly getting involved in gang action when he was younger. In the course of that altercation, he lost the use of his legs and his brother was killed. Cole gets caught up in a police drug bust and runs from a policeman who is wielding his gun. We hear gun fire in the distance at night a couple times.
Cole gets caught up in some perilous situations with the horses a few times. He tip-toes around a couple of the snorting animals and gets cornered in a stall. And in one case, he has to approach an angry and kicking beast, to try and calm it before someone else gets hurt.
The biggest content concern in the movie is its profanity count. We hear more than 70 f-words, as well as at least 60 s-words. They’re joined by many other profane exclamations, including “h—,” “d–n,” “b–ch” and “a–.” “N-gga” is used more 20 times. And God’s name is mixed with the word “d–n” a few times.
There’s a lot of smoking and drinking going on around the stables. In fact, Harp is nearly always puffing on a handmade cigarette. And when Cole first arrives, the only things in Harp’s refrigerator were several cans of Coke and beer.
We see adults and young people drinking beer and hard liquor at a block party as well as one teen-filled party.
Along with tobacco puffing, Cole and a friend appear to smoke marijuana and get high. That impression is supported by the fact that the friend, Smush, also gets involved with selling drugs on street corners and connecting with other sellers. In fact, Smush goes so far in his efforts that he crosses a local drug boss and earns the man’s ire.
Smush is wrapped up in a variety of in-the-shadows deals that range from drug sales to theft. He gives Cole a stolen pair of sneakers. Cole and Smush talk about filling squirt guns with urine as kids. Stable cleaning is part of Cole’s duties, and that’s played for toilet-humor laughs at times.
Concrete Cowboy is a modern redemption tale with an equal number of aces and poison snakes in its boot.
The troubled-teen nuts and bolts of the tale feel well-worn. But the Fletcher Street cowboys setting is compelling. The solid acting chops of Idris Elba and fellow castmates keep things galloping along nicely. And the pull-up-your-bootstraps, hard-things-before-good-things story lessons here are solid ones.
In spite of those figurative yee-haws, however, this film is still a rough ride. For one thing, the dialogue is incredibly profane and foul. And in spite of all the potential of a story about modern-day black cowboys in the culturally rich and diverse city of Philadelphia, the story often seems unnecessarily focused on stereotypical drug-pushing and street violence.
You’re left with the feeling that this cinematic saddle could have been so much easier to slip into, and the ride far more enlightening, if there had only been a more gifted pair of gloved hands on the reins.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.