It’s amazing the films that fall into your lap by chance. Back in April, a film by the name of Cowboys was put onto my Twitter feed by happenstance. I read through the linked IndieWire article, found myself interested, and immediately added it to my watchlist.
I’ve been trying to highlight transgender film for a few years now, be that actors, directors, or screenwriters. And I’ll watch almost anything, really, because of how sparse transgender representation is spread through mainstream Hollywood. So it was frankly not a matter of if I was going to watch Cowboys, but when.
Cowboys is not due for a wide release until sometime in December of 2020, but until then, it’s still making some festival rounds, as festivals have gone completely online as a result of COVID. Unfortunately, most of these festivals require you to still be within the state or country it was originally set to take place in.
Luckily enough for me, Canada’s Inside Out festival is one of the few I could find that was selling limited digital access to countless new queer films, and for only $11 (and maybe the use of a VPN), I got to watch Cowboys a few months earlier than I would have. That means I get to hype it up to you the reader, who might not have heard of it before!
That IndieWire article aforementioned describes Cowboys as “a modern day Butch Cassidy”, and the film itself supports this by making the occasional passing reference to the classic western, as well as holding similar themes.
Cowboys, barebones, is about Troy (Steve Zahn), his wife Sally (Jillian Bell), and their child Joe (played by newcomer Sasha Knight). With a somewhat non-chronological narrative, we see as this family slowly falls apart, culminating in Troy and Joe running away in an effort to reach the Canadian border. And because this movie has some months left before its wider release, that is as much plot as I feel comfortable sharing, lest I start accidentally giving out spoilers.
There’s a lot of elements in Cowboys that ring true of other films that I love — Butch Cassidy most obviously, but also Logan and Brokeback Mountain. All films that either reference the Western format or use it directly. It is a film that loves the midwestern United States, Montana in particular. There are countless shots of forests and mountain ranges, all as beautiful or haunting as they need to be for the various parts in Troy and Joe’s journey.
Troy and Joe, as previously mentioned, make up the central heart of the film. Their relationship is rocky at times, as Troy’s unmedicated mania causes several problems with lasting repercussions, but the film is careful that we never lose sight at the motivation behind his actions. While Joe’s relationship with his mother becomes hostile when he comes out as transgender, Troy is much more receptive. Troy is a natural jokester, but he quickly shifts and takes Joe seriously when he realizes the magnitude of his struggles, in what is one of the best scenes of the film.
This was my first real exposure to Steve Zahn as a serious actor (I’m Gen Z, I was introduced to him as the dad from the Wimpy Kid movies), and I was pleasantly blown away by how completely he lost himself in the character. Nearly every major character feels lived-in and personalized, and Zahn leads them in a powerhouse role, more than earning Tribeca’s best actor award. Alongside him, Sasha Knight does amazing in his first acting role, balancing repressed and angry daughter with freespirited but naive son; especially considering he was only 10 when filming this, his performance more than deserves praise.
And while Troy and Joe are the focal points, Jillian Bell as Sally still shines in a role where it would be incredibly easy to write lazily and one-dimensionally. But both Bell and writer/director Anna Kerrigan succeeded in giving Sally a genuine depth as a mother who struggles to accept her transgender child, despite loving him dearly. While Troy and Joe are gone, her arc focuses on reckoning with her response to Joe; she must make the decision if she wants to risk losing her child because she doesn’t understand him.
What strikes me about Cowboys is how it handles its transgender plotline; the subgenre of “a family tries to deal with a transgender child” is a small one, but one that’s been growing in popularity in the past decade. Cowboys is one of the few that focuses on transgender issues without making transgender issues the entire point, if that makes sense. In an interview, Anna Kerrigan said-
“While Joe’s gender identity is an important catalyst in the film, in that it ignites the conflict between his parents that sets everything in motion, his character arc is more about a boy becoming a man than a child coming out.”
Having seen the film, I can confirm that Joe comes out pretty early into the film, in the grand scheme of things. It is a film much less concerned about coming out than it is with what happens once you have come out, what happens after that first major milestone is crossed. Kerrigan manages the rare feat of writing a transgender character where gender is not their only notable trait, while still making it an important one. Further still, Kerrigan’s ways of filming Joe work to make us feel just as uncomfortable as he does in dresses and in displays of femininity. It works to make his moments of feeling accepted and masculine all the more powerful. And Sasha Knight’s performance elevates the writing all the higher.
Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cowboys is about dismantling the romanticized idea of cowboys and, by extension, manhood. I think all trans men, in one form or another, idolized displays of masculinity and maleness that were unhealthy or unobtainable, and Cowboys is about growing out of that without necessarily abandoning it. We carry our influences everywhere we go, in obvious ways and others less so. But they are always there, because they are what shaped us into our gender identity today.
Like Brokeback Mountain, we watch as the rustic scenery turns from a place of freedom to a place of anguish and anxiety. We return to isolation in nature to find ourselves and to grow, and it is in those mountains that Joe comes into himself as a man for the first time. It just ticks all of my own personal boxes for what I enjoy in LGBT Westerns.
Some elements might feel slightly underwritten or too simplistic, but coming in just over 80 minutes long, the film feels at a perfect length for what it is. I like my comparisons to Brokeback Mountain in that in both films, you can see how much research and effort went into showing the highs and lows of queer life in the midwestern United States. There is nothing but love for these characters in both films, where it otherwise would’ve been incredibly easy to take a cynical point of view. Suffering happens, but suffering isn’t the point; the point is thriving in between those bad moments and in some ways in spite of them. Often simple, but by no means less effective for it.
Overall, Cowboys is a beautiful little film that I’m incredibly thankful for the opportunity to have seen. It has amazing actors, a solid story, and cinematography that makes me yearn for a state I haven’t ever been to. I’m going to continue keeping my eye on this to make sure I don’t miss out on its eventual DVD release, and I hope if something like this interests you, you do the same. It’s 80 minutes and an experience you will not forget.
Cowboys is set for release in December 2020.