Elba plays Harp, one of the leaders of the Fletcher Street Stables community. He works in the stables, helps the young rebels of the community and takes care of the horses, of which he keeps a home. Harp has a son, Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), who lives in Detroit. As the film opened, Cole’s discipline issues at school and at home grew too much for his mother. Without telling her son, she decides to drop him off in Philadelphia to spend the summer with Harp. Cole protests with all his might, but it’s such a done deal that his mother leaves in the middle of the protest, leaving him on the street outside Harp’s house.
Cole has a history in Philadelphia, although very little understands his father. But Harp’s neighbors remember him, starting with Nessie (Toussaint), a stern but loving member of the community. She catches the attention of the devastated Cole and sends him around the corner to find his father. Harp sits around a campfire more appropriate for a city – a flaming trash can – exchanging stories with his band of siblings. At one point, a cop played by Method Man shows up, not to break up the party, but to warn them about the condition of the stables.
This is all beyond the bizarre for Cole; in addition to the chip on his shoulder of being forced to spend time with a man he barely knows, living conditions leave much to be desired. Not only does he have to deal with empty closets and a fridge stocked only with soda and beer, but there’s the aforementioned equine roommate taking up most of the space for house guests. Harp spends more time and money feeding his horses than he does himself, so Cole will have to eat a lot outside.
Philly offers a respite: the late reunion between Cole and his older cousin, Smush (Jerome). Smush takes him to familiar places, smokes weed with him, and talks about an entire game of spades worth it. He also explains that when a guy’s mom sends him to spend the summer with his pop, it’s an irreversible scenario. Straub and his co-author, Dan Walser, use the character of Jerome to differentiate the paths a young man like Cole might take, drawing on an all too familiar plot and outcome. Yet they also surprise us by painting an often tender portrait of a man who once stood at the same crossroads our protagonist will stand. Jérôme, as usual, delivers an excellent performance, nuanced and complex. He’s so good at generating empathy that when brutality happens to him the movie can barely show it to us.