Caleb McLaughlin seems to have skipped the awkward phase. You know, that gangly, voice-is-cracking rite of passage for child stars who grow up in front of the camera; the unfortunate stage that makes audiences wonder whether the young celeb will be able to push through to adult acting success or be relegated to adolescent obscurity, frozen in time as the character they played as a child.
You won’t have to wonder with McLaughlin. The New York-raised Stranger Things star (who turns 19 next month) went straight from cute-kid-on-that-hit-Netflix-show to grown-ass leading man in his feature film debut, Concrete Cowboy, co-starring Idris Elba and Emmy-award winner Jharrel Jerome. “I really think that Caleb became a man doing this part,” Jerome told me during the film’s virtual Toronto International Film Festival press conference I moderated on Sunday. McLaughlin agreed, calling the film set “almost like my senior year of high school,” he said. “I’m totally different than last year, mindset-wise… I’ve grown into the young man that I am today.”
Concrete Cowboy, which had its official TIFF premiere last night, is a gritty indie family drama directed by Ricky Staub (in his directorial debut) and produced by Lee Daniels (Precious, Empire). McLaughlin plays Cole, a troubled teen sent to live with his estranged father Harp (Elba) in North Philadelphia. Cole immerses himself in his dad’s community of Black horse trainers in the middle of the city (a real-life subculture of Philly) while trying to resist the temptation of his petty crime-craving childhood friend, Smush (Jerome). It’s a Western unlike anything Hollywood has seen and as its lead, McLaughlin shines in the film in ways he wasn’t able to in the ensemble of Stranger Things. Even next to the powerhouse that is IDRIS ELBA (who plays a stirringly affecting gruff cowboy with vulnerability and ease), McLaughlin holds his own.
It’s not just that McLaughlin is now deeper-voiced and significantly taller than he was when we met Lucas and his friends battling evil forces and the Upside Down, he’s also got a mature and magnetic on-screen presence you can’t look away from. He combines faux teenage bravado with the fragility of a kid coming-of-age. It’s exhilarating to watch.
“I was so proud to be able to witness Caleb’s performance and his stepping into some really big shoes,” Elba said when I asked how McLaughlin managed to convey their volatile and emotional father-son bond. “It’s a very big role and it’s a very important one.” The film’s most emotional moments are when McLaughlin and Elba go toe-to-toe as a hurt yet headstrong abandoned child and a lonely, guarded man attempting to be a dad. One scene in which Cole confronts Harp over his reasons for leaving is sure to make even the toughest cowboy cry. “When I was reading the script, I was in tears… We see them come together when they have no choice. We see the son become a man and we see the dad become a father,” Elba said.
I was so proud to be able to witness Caleb’s performance and his stepping into some really big shoes.
The beating heart of this film may be the father/son dynamic, but its soul lies in the fascinating world of Black cowboys. The film is based on the Fletcher Street Stables in Philadelphia (the urban riding club has been around for 100 years and is still active) and intimately tells the story of a little-known community and a culture that is often white-washed by Hollywood. Staub, the director, even enlisted regulars from the stables to play supporting roles — like Ivannah Mercedes (Esha) and Jamil “Mil” Prattis, the latter plays Paris, a cowboy whose love of horses didn’t stop when a spinal cord injury left him without use of his legs. Prattis taught Elba and McLaughlin how to ride since, when filming started, “wasn’t none of them good,” he said with a laugh. (In Elba’s defence, he’s allergic to horses.) McLaughlin, meanwhile, bonded with a horse named Boo, and spent off hours on set playing basketball with “Mil” who beat him while he was wearing cowboy boots.
During the press conference, the cast and crew (veteran actor Lorraine Toussaint, who plays neighborhood matriarch and longtime rider Nessi, was also on the video call) lovingly ribbed McLaughlin while Prattis told the above anecdote and it was clear that McLaughlin was treated as an equal on set. McLaughlin and Elba got so close, the former now calls one of the most famous men in Hollywood, “Uncle Idris.”
While Concrete Cowboy is getting mostly solid reviews, critics are rightly pointing out the film’s sometimes uneven and predictable plot (even when the film falters, its performances save the day). However, the constant is overwhelming praise of Elba and McLaughlin’s chemistry and their depiction of Black masculinity and familial conflict. It may be McLaughlin’s first film and Elba’s one hundredth (approximately), but they are now officially peers. “When I got to set, I looked at Caleb the same way I look at Idris,” Jerome said of his co-stars. “It’s two distinguished actors. I don’t care how young Caleb is, he’s really put his foot [in the door of] his career. I think [this role] is going to change his life.”