Cowboys rides all guns blazing into its transgender childhood story

Anna Kerrigan’s Trump-era tale of a trans boy’s coming out undermines its nuanced family dynamics with unwieldy moments of violent action.

Sasha Knight as Joe and Steve Zahn as Troy in Cowboys (2020)

▶︎ Cowboys is available on Curzon Home Cinema.

Cowboys was made during the twilight of Donald Trump’s presidency, which saw the dialling back of health protections for trans people and a military ban, since overturned by Joe Biden. Right-wing commentators during the Trump era dedicated many hours to mocking transgender people, with trans kids being weaponised as evidence that the ‘trans agenda’ has gone ‘too far’, and that children are incapable of identifying as anything other than their assigned gender at birth.

In this context, Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys – in which Troy (Steve Zahn) goes on the run with his young trans son Joe (Sasha Knight) through rural Montana, a solid Republican state – stands as a forceful bid for tolerance and acceptance. The two males hope to cross over to Canada, a migration many Americans pledged to make following the election of Donald Trump in 2016, seeing the country as a liberal haven compared to the bigotry associated with Trumpism. Flashbacks show how Troy and his wife Sally (Jillian Bell) reacted in very different ways when Joe came out as trans.

Cowboys is the latest of a number of recent American films about trans kids, following Silas Howard’s A Kid Like Jake (2018) and Sharon Liese’s HBO documentary Transhood (2020). Despite their best intentions, none have captured the potency of the best European films featuring young protagonists grappling with gender identity and society’s cisnormativity, such as Alain Berliner’s Ma vie en rose (1997), Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy (2011) and Sébastien Lifshitz’s Little Girl (2020). Although those films feature plenty of emotional drama, they are sensitive and intimate portraits that avoid melodrama. Compare that to the abductions, violent brawls, near-drownings and gunfire in Cowboys, which at times feels closer in spirit to a thriller rather than a drama.

Sasha Knight as Joe and Jillian Bell as Sally in Cowboys

The quieter moments of the film are much more effective, allowing the characters to breathe and develop. Despite the central father-son relationship, the most interesting character is Sally, Joe’s mother, very well played by Jillian Bell. Starting the film defensive and quick to slam down discussions about her child’s gender identity, by the end she has gone on a more compelling journey than her ex-husband and child. Sally is stuck in a thankless domestic role she feels she must inhabit, despite the unhappiness it brings her. In one piquant flashback, she rails against her husband, who society allows to be more fun and carefree and who her child clearly prefers. Sally believes Joe wants to identify as male because, given her own lot in life, “Who would choose to be a girl?”

Trans actor Sasha Knight offers a solid performance as Joe, a believably flawed child. At times bratty and annoying, he is no saintly victim. It’s a shame, though, that the film does not spend more time understanding Joe and his realisation he is not a girl, beyond wanting to play with toys traditionally aimed at boys and cutting his hair short. His ‘coming out’ scene is well handled by Knight, particularly his poignant observation that “Sometimes I think aliens put me in this girl body as a joke”. But too much time is dedicated to the moments when his character’s actions have plot-changing consequences – one when he goes fishing unsupervised, another when he is holding a rifle – which drown out the film’s more tender moments.

Sasha Knight as Joe and Steve Zahn as Troy in Cowboys

Zahn is fine as the angelic father, whose bad, often dangerous decisions stem from being off his medication or defending his son, whose gender identity he accepts from the moment his son tells him about it. The setting and the relationship between a teenager and their rebellious father recall Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace (2018), which gives a more nuanced take on an unusual parent-child dynamic.

A repeated folksy, whistled music refrain and the retreat into the forest evoke a fable, though Sally is the only character to change significantly and learn from her son. The title and setting evoke classic western tropes, and their insistence on a certain form of masculinity, but the film only occasionally interrogates these. Cowboys ultimately feels like two films uneasily blended into one – a thriller that over-eggs the peril, and a drama about a flawed, unusual and sympathetic family breaking down. Had the filmmakers focused on the latter, Cowboys could have been something very special.

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