Coming of age documentaries certainly aren't new territory. Recent films like Quest and Raising Bertie are stellar projects that document the transformative years of their subjects as they embark on the journey from their teen years to adulthood. Daniel Patrick Carbone's Phantom Cowboys uses that same model but twists it into something we've never seen before. Following three different young men -- Larry, Nick and Tyler from Pahokee, Florida; Trona, California; and Parkersburg, West Virginia -- Carbone introduces us to these young teens just as they are stepping into themselves. All three are on the cusp of shedding the wistful naivete of childhood, but instead of following them, Carbone breaks away, re-entering their lives seven years later to see where they’ve ended up.
Pahokee, Trona and Parkersburg are all very particular places in the United States. Almost frozen in time, except for the glimpses of technology that Carbone hints at throughout the film, there is minimal opportunity for the people in these towns. When we first meet Larry at 13 years old, he spends his days running through sugarcane crops and shooting rabbits with his best friends. At 20, he’s taller, broader and newly released from prison after a 3-year bid for aggravated battery. Despite his circumstances, his spirit is not completely worn down, but his innocence and excitement about the world have long since disappeared.
In Trone, Nick's life plays out very differently. At 17, he lives for football, and his identity is deeply ingrained in his community. In Trone, the chemical plant seems to be the only way of life; Nick's father has worked there for decades. As a teen, Nick seems weary of a certain future at the plant, but at 23 with a 4 a.m. wakeup call, he’s thankful for the steady income and the familiarity the plant provides. In fact, he’s turned down a college football scholarship to remain close to his family, teaching his little brother to fix things and to ride a motorbike.
For Tyler, Parkersburg represents one thing, dirt racing. At 18, he spends his days with his father at a garage, making money to support his daughter. But at night, it's all about racing. When we meet Tyler again at 25, his obsession has begun to pay off. With four little girls and a wife to support, he’s starting to win races while making a name for himself in the racing community. When Tyler's not working or behind the wheel, he’s taking his daughters to and from school and tucking them in at night. He's completely cloaked in adulthood.
Phantom Cowboys is a sound and engaging documentary that comments on time and who we become because of or despite it. Carbone masters the ability to approach the coming-of-age genre by subverting a linear timeline. At various times throughout the film, we hear Tyler, Larry and Nick’s past or present reflections paired with video of their past or present selves. Though slow-moving at times and slightly uneven, which may have been a result of who Carbone has access to, the filmmaker reflects on environments and if we’re destined to become a product of what surrounds us. Unfortunately for Larry, the absolute lack of opportunity in the community that surrounds him finds him in chains. His best friend fares far worse.
Visually stunning, especially when Carbone captures the bonfires of Trone, the race tracks of Parkersburg and the burning cane in Pahokee, the film was also devastating. The director carefully chose three different subjects with three vastly distinctive backgrounds. However, it’s Larry’s journey that is the most heart-wrenching to watch. Unlike Tyler and Nick who have solid father figures and at least one path for a steady income, Larry has nothing but time. Time on the inside – years of his life marked by bars and steel doors, and time on the outside to reflect on where it all went wrong. Despite his outward optimism, especially for his little brother who is almost 6 when he's released, there is no recourse for a new journey.
A graceful reflection on boyhood and the erasure of joy, Phantom Cowboys, is more than a straightforward look at three young men's bend toward adulthood. Instead, it is a commentary on the barriers that confine us in our society and the walls that we build for ourselves despite our best intentions.
Phantom Cowboys premiered April 22, 2018, at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.