Out now on digital platforms after a great virtual screening at Glasgow Film Festival, Cowboys, directed by Anna Kerrigan, explores the father and son dynamic in a modern way. A troubled, but well intentioned father, Troy (Steve Zahn), absconds with his son into the Montana wilderness after his ex-wife Sally (Jillian Bell) refuses to embrace their child’s true gender. Playing out across a non-linear timeline, Cowboys simultaneously follows the destruction of Troy and Sally’s relationship, young Joe shedding off his female accoutrements and stepping out as himself, and the treacherous journey into the woods. The adventure begins happily enough, but as Troy’s lies, and the police looking for them begin to close in, events spiral.
This spiral is not what the film is working toward however, Kerrigan is much more interested in the familial dynamics and how family members can struggle when their child is revealed to be something other than what they had expected. Kerrigan’s choice of making it a father and son story is an interesting one. So often in film and television it is the father that is portrayed as having a problem with their trans, gay, or lesbian child, but by switching it up to having the mother being confused, it adds a new slant.
Bell is incredibly moving in her portrayal as Sally as she tries to make sense of her son’s new gender identity, whilst at the same time being distraught at not knowing his whereabouts. Zahn is also compelling as the father who instantly supports his child, but is battling his own demons that could put Joe into harm’s way. The true star of the piece though is the performance of Sasha Knight; the youngster shows an incredible amount of maturity for someone so young. Knight plays both cowboy boot clad Joe and the long-haired forced-into-a-dress Joe with a keen maturity. Much as in real life, you see the weight lifted off of Joe as soon as he is encouraged to be himself. Knight manages to somehow articulate this sensation through a few changes in mannerisms and looks alone.
There’s a strange The Hunt for the Wilderpeople vibe to Cowboys. The two films share some basic overarching plot points, meaning that in spite of its heavier subject matter, Cowboys remains accessible. This more laid-back approach opens the film up to those outside of the indie film festival market, and the inclusion of the comedic talents of Bell and Zahn will certainly help the film appeal to an even wider audience. Cowboys has an incredibly important story to tell. This is a story that affects so many, and with little representation out there for those going through, or supporting someone through this intensive journey, it is a vital watch for someone in need of help. That isn’t to say that the film is a ‘how to cope’ guide, but it does at least offer some comfort to know that you are not alone. The subject matter hits especially close to home for me as we have a trans teenager in the family, and whilst thankfully for him he has had a solid support system around him, I know that this isn’t always the case for some people fighting to be heard.
Cowboys is available on Digital HD now.