In writer/director Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys a father and his transgender son journey through the Montana mountain ranges escaping the boy’s mother, who is unable to accept his gender dysphoria.
We’re outlaws, Sonby Chris Drew
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As a father and son take in the spectacular sweeping vistas of Montana, a mother looks for her child and is shocked to find an empty bedroom and open window.
We see Troy (Steve Zahn, Captain Fantastic) and son Joe (Sasha Knight, in a debut film role) arriving late to see Troy’s old friend Robert (Gary Farmer, First Cow), Troy says they are going on a camping trip and need a place to stay for the night but Robert wakes to find Troy has taken his horse and his gun, albeit with a note saying he will return the gun.
Troy and Joe then begin an adventure on horseback through the Montana landscape heading to Canada where Troy tells Joe the trees will be even taller and the water bluer.
Joe’s mother Sally (Jillian Bell, Godmothered) reports the kidnap to the police, revealing she and Troy are separated, and he is allowed to visit once a week. We also discover that Troy has spent some time in prison and is bipolar and prone to manic episodes.
The story has a three-strand structure: Troy and Joe’s perilous adventure, the investigation and pursuit of them led by Detective Faith Ericksen (Emmy-winner Ann Dowd, Compliance), and then in flashback we gradually learn the story of Joe and his family.
The reveal that Joe is biologically female comes when Sally gives the police a photo of Joe and a flashback of a family barbecue shows a deeply awkward and uncomfortable Joe wearing a dress with long hair.
The film’s simple but deeply meaningful title not only describes Troy and Joe on their journey but also how way Joe finds his true self, through his fascination with cowboys.
We see Joe transfixed on Troy and his friends at the bowling alley focusing their clothes and how they what hold themselves and later see him practising wearing a western belt buckle.
It’s during a deeply moving late-night scene in Troy’s truck that Joe comes out to his father, saying it’s felt like aliens put him in his body as a joke. Wide-eyed Troy is shocked but is kind and loving: he promises he believes Joe.
Troy’s understanding and acceptance contrasts with Sally’s reaction. Reflecting on her own mundane home existence, compared to Troy’s fun life with his buddies, “why would anyone choose to be a girl?” is her exasperated reply.
Troy’s love for his son is evident in another flashback where he stands up for Joe after vicious homophobic slurs from a young cousin, but he ends up hitting his brother-in-law, which escalates dramatically.
Young trans actor Sasha Knight brings a great authenticity and expressiveness to Joe, wonderfully bringing the character’s journey of self-discovery and acceptance to life.
Steven Zahn is consistently likeable displaying Troy’s personal struggles but his continued devotion to his son. In a change of pace for comedic actress Jillian Bell, her natural warmth ensures that Sally is not just a one-note unsympathetic character.
The truly breathtaking Montana landscapes feel like their own character throughout and are beautifully shot.
Despite a heart-stopping moment of late shock, the thriller elements could have been increased but ultimately Cowboys is more intimate family drama and character study than fugitives with Stetsons. At its heart Anna Kerrigan’s film is a thoroughly moving and engaging representation of trans youth.
Cowboys screened at the 35th BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival and is available to screen as part of BFI Flare until 28th March as part of the UK-wide digital programme on BFI Player.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Cowboys on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download on 7 May 2021.