COWBOYS: A Contemporary Western That Draws From Empathy & Parental Love

The Western is habitually associated with masculine gunslingers who venture a hostile terrain in search of justice or freedom. Unlike the classic Western, a Revisionist Western deconstructs its genre trappings, demythologizes the hero’s journey and their thirst for violence or escape, and warps the morality of the central character. In Anna Kerrigan’s delicate and modestly subversive take on the Western, a father violates his parole and pulls his son away from an unpleasant upbringing.

In her first full-length feature, Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys is a contemporary Western that follows a father and his transgender son who are on the run in rural western Montana. It’s a kidnapping situation first disguised as a bonding expedition. Troy (Steve Zahn of War for the Planet of the Apes) is a devoted and compassionate father who cares deeply for his son Joe (Sasha Knight).

But Troy’s also wrestling his own demons, though a healthy dose of medication seems to keep them away. When we first meet Troy and Joe, they’re in the heart of Glacier National Park, watching as the endless stretches of sky and trees paints an image of a world that signifies liberation, and a world where Joe and Troy can be themselves without loved ones deeming them unworthy. From there, Troy borrows a friend’s horse and heads to Canada to start anew.

It isn’t long until we learn that Troy kidnapped Joe, which is made all the more fascinatingly tense and curious when Joe’s mother Sally (Jillian Bell of 22 Jump Street and the most recent Brittany Runs a Marathon) calls the local police, and steadfast detective Faith (Ann Dowd) arrives on-scene to helm the investigation of her son.

Initially, viewers would feel compelled to anathematize this kidnapping, but Kerrigan puts viewers in an intricate dilemma: Troy is striving to free his transgender son from the prejudice of his mother by whisking him away from her overbearing grasp. With their eyes set on the Canadian border and the police tracing their movement, Troy and Joe become fully-fledged outlaws. If only it were like the movies…

An Exquisite Buddy Western With Superb Performances From Steve Zahn & Sasha Knight

Cowboys is a low-key exploration of a child growing into their own skin, and an even more fraught exploration of a father and mother dealing with the fact that their daughter has come out as transgender. Admittedly, there is a tempting amount of uncertainty regarding whether or not Troy will reach Canada, but the physical obstacles hardly match up to the cleverly edited flashbacks of Joe’s coming out, and the unsavory moments that motivated Troy and Joe to run away.

COWBOYS: A Modern-day Western That Draws From Empathy & Parental Love
source: Tribeca Film Festival

In flashbacks, Joe still has long blonde hair and is forced to wear dresses, but what she really wants to wear is a shiny cowboy belt buckle and a flannel shirt. This internal crisis is made immensely lucid in a scene that plays out at a bowling alley, where Joe is sitting with a group of chatty women, and she can only pay attention to a group of men on the other side of the room, who are wearing the customary cowboy getup.

Assuming the role of Joe with a perky sense of boldness and defiance, Sasha Knight delivers a stellar performance that’ll easily tear at your heartstrings. Joe puts up a fierce front, but underneath his flinty exterior, he’s still a kid, and he doesn’t know any better. Steve Zahn’s understated performance as Joe’s well-intentioned father dominates the film. Troy exudes an unsound degree of self-assurance that roughly has to do with not being able to take his meds. He’s a messy character with a messy past, but his unparalleled love for his son redeems him as a likable protagonist. Together, Knight and Zahn have irresistible chemistry that’s coming from a place of shared interest: Troy and Joe are living the reality they only ever saw in Westerns; they’re cowboys on the run. But shouldn’t they already know that the law always catches up to the runaway cowboy?

When Joe does acquire the courage to tell her father that she was born into the wrong body, Troy jokes at first, but in the end, he couldn’t be more supportive. Sally, however, refutes the very idea that Joe is a boy, and she goes on to blame Troy for Joe’s hankering to dress and act like a cowboy. In a misguided conversation, Sally compares Joe’s gender confusions with her own childhood fantasies when she thought that she’ll be able to sing and look like Peggy Lee, the popular American singer and composer. “God’s got the game plan”, is the best advice Sally can think of.

After coming out as transgender, Sally still does all she can to keep Joe’s fashion sense and toy selection feminine. Troy, on the other hand, instantly takes Joe shopping for flannel, and he does all he can to talk some sense into Sally.

Anna Kerrigan’s veristic script tinkers with the familial struggle of accepting your kid for who they are in a breathtakingly raw manner. Instead of representing the mother and father in a clear-cut image, they are more complicated and wonderfully human. Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell both operate on the same level, convincing us that they could’ve been a real couple at some point in time, while also ensuring that their parental disputes hold genuine weight. The arguments revolving around Joe’s gender identity aren’t needlessly embroidered, and each heated dispute has cogent implications (like when Joe cuts his own hair when he overhears Sally threaten Troy with no visitation).

A Naturalistic Journey Of Acceptance

Troy and Joe’s adventure is met with a lot of hiccups and feelings of doubt. But it’s Sally, Joe’s conservative mother, who undergoes a lot of softly stirring change. That’s also where Kerrigan not only humanizes the character but wholly accomplishes her directorial vision as well — which is more or less about being able to adapt and change as a parent, or as a human being. All hope isn’t lost, especially for those who live unconventional lives and are judged for it. In another performance that goes directly against her more comedic roles, Jillian Bell’s Sally is frustratingly assertive and stubborn, but she still radiates a certain level of solicitude, for Joe and for Troy — which continues to grow until she finally warms up to the idea that her son needs her to be comfortable with how Joe sees himself. The long-term consequences of repressing someone’s gender identity can be destructive, so why fight it? Learn to accept it.

COWBOYS: A Modern-day Western That Draws From Empathy & Parental Love
source: Tribeca Film Festival

Considering religion is a hallowed institution many families abide by, it isn’t always easy for someone to declare their gender identity because the fear of disownment or judgment prevents them from doing so. Woefully, Sally’s original response to her transgender son is much more usual than Troy’s genial embrace. Many members of the LGBTQ community are disowned and kicked out of their homes by the very people who raised them. In Cowboys, Sally doesn’t disown Joe, and she doesn’t love him any less, but she still spends the majority of the picture via flashback suppressing Joe’s identity.

Albeit the supporting characters aren’t as well-written as Troy and Joe, there are a handful of scenes where the supporting cast shines. As Sally begins to rethink how she dealt with Joe’s coming out, her reflection is more palpably felt in the character’s quieter moments. There’s also a memorable scene where detective Faith upbraided Sally for not telling the police that her “daughter” now has short hair. From that moment, Sally slowly but engrossingly spirals down into a state of sober reflection.

John Wakayama Carey’s gorgeous cinematography captures the photogenic setting of rural Montana with an unassuming camera, letting the audience take in the views from the characters’ own vantage point. Add Gene Back’s old-time Western score,  Anna Kerrigan’s impressively authentic script, and the actors Sasha Knight and Steve Zahn to the trip, and the journey becomes all the more enticing.

Cowboys Is A Beautifully Filmed & Exceptionally Acted Modern-Day Western

Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys documents a confusing time in a child’s life. When Joe comes out as transgender, Joe’s father embraces it, while Joe’s mother refuses to recognize it. Troy tries to liberate his transgender son from his traditional mother by kidnapping him. It’s a rash decision that will inevitably trigger dire ramifications, or maybe real moments of self-evaluation for both parents alike.

Handled with caution and newfound compassion, Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys keeps the perspective limited to Joe’s parents, as the film empathetically develops them. Joe’s perspective could’ve been more largely outlined, but Cowboys still rewards great emotional accuracy to those who embark on the 74-minute trek.

Have you seen Cowboys? If not, are you interested in seeing it now? Let us know in the comments!

Cowboys was scheduled to screen at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It’s currently seeking U.S. distribution.


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