Steve Zahn and Sasha Knight share beautiful chemistry in a tender portrait of a father and his transgender child out in the wilderness
Nestled deep in the Montana wilderness, a father and son ride north on horseback. They trot through stunning mountainous scenery, camping, fishing, and foraging on a journey of self-discovery. What sets Anna Kerrigan’s delicately remastered western Cowboys apart is the way it finds a less familiar thread in a well-trodden genre: that of a young transgender boy and his desire to be visible.
Like outlaws on the run, Joe (Sasha Knight), and his sensitive father, Troy (Steve Zahn), are escaping Joe’s overbearing mother, Sally (Jillian Bell), whose repetitive attempts to put Joe in dresses and deny his pronouns are horribly damaging. Unable to watch as his child is “moulded like clay,” Troy hatches an ambitious plan for the both of them to escape.
Cowboys tells a story of transgender youth through two intercut narratives: the first contains the preceding days of Joe’s uncomfortableness in the transphobic environment of his mother’s house. This plot is alternated with scenes of father-and-son intrepidly trekking through the expansive, uninhabited landscape. Editor Jarrah Gurrie neatly weaves together these two timelines in an address of parental conflict; for Sally, this is an abduction; for Troy, it's a rescue mission. The added inclusion of Detective Faith Erickson (the ever-brilliant Ann Dowd), who sets out in pursuit of the pair and is unsettled by Sally’s denial of her son’s identity, adds another supportive voice.
Newcomer Sasha Knight’s fantastic performance grounds Joe with an exuberantly playful inquisitiveness. The excitement from the young boy’s perspective is riveting and his beaming smile works as a compass for his father. The enchantment of Joe’s cowboy dreams coming true, however, start to wear thin when Kerrigan’s focus strays from Joe to centre on Sally and Troy’s turbulent relationship. Cowboys would have benefited from keeping an unequivocal focus on Joe’s story, as the lack of commitment interrupts the established poignancy.
In its following of parental guardianship paired with a sprightly spontaneity, Cowboys is reminiscent of Leave No Trace’s natural aesthetic, though Kerrigan’s film finds originality in its borrowing and repurposing of western genre stylistics: John Wakayama Carey’s camera swoops through Montana mountain ranges, taking in the natural sunlight; as night falls, Troy’s head torch becomes the only source of light. Through a cinematically earnest lens, Cowboys shows Troy as a beacon of gentle support and fatherhood for Joe. A distracting and half-baked subplot aside, Zahn and Knight’s beautiful chemistry is the star of the film.
Amongst this natural wilderness, Joe and his valiant, cowboy-loving personality are allowed to flourish without judgement. With its refreshing levels of optimism, this is an unequivocally tender and sweet portrait of a transgender child given the space for adventure.
Cowboys was screened as part of the BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival 2021. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch