This endearing tale of the love between a parent and a child follows Troy (Steve Zahn) and his son Joe (Sasha Knight) as they attempt to cross the border into Canada to escape a wife and mother (Jillian Bell) who is unwilling to accept her transgender child.
Taking place in the folksy corner of America that is Montana, Cowboys is aptly named after the area’s Western sensibilities. The film is stuffed full of cowboy boots, belt buckles, blue jeans, pickup trucks and regressive attitudes that would make one believe they had travelled back in time.
Growing up in such an area, very few understand or accept Joe when he comes out as transgender—nobody but his father, that is. Sally’s attempts to suppress her son’s feelings – demanding Joe continue to wear dresses and play with girly toys – becomes too much for Troy to watch. So, he forms a half-baked plan to escape with his son and trek through the rural expanse of Montana across the Canadian border.
Cowboys uses location to present negative gender expectations that arise from Montana’s Western culture. Stylistically, Anna Kerrigan presents her film as a quasi-western, which gives her critique of such negative traits more impact. The plot resembles Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and much of the movie’s imagery is reminiscent of the famous cowboy films of old.
Despite this incredibly clever critique of western culture, the film takes on much more than it can handle, making for a film that means well but ultimately feels shallow in many respects. The movie juggles Joe and Troy on the run, the local police force on their tail and the effect that this has on Sally. On top of this, there are occasional flashbacks to Joe’s childhood that outline the source of Tory’s frustrations. Each story is interesting on the surface, but Kerrigan’s struggles to strike an even balance between them in such a short period of time makes for an altogether uneven story.
Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is the relationship between Troy and Joe. In the best performance of his career, Steve Zahn, alongside newcomer Sasha Knight create wonderful chemistry that is consistently fun to watch.
Despite the flaws weighing Cowboys down, the film delivers a vital message, sweet story, and short runtime that make it a movie worthy of your time.
Dir: Anna Kerrigan
Scr: Anna Kerrigan
Cast: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight
DOP: John Wakayama Carey
Runtime: 83 minutes
Cowboys will screen as part of the 2021 BFI Flare Festival on March 17th 2021