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.
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