The classic Western, with its musings and missives on rugged masculinity, has always held an abiding fascination for gender-playful kids who lean towards the boy-ish side of the spectrum. The Paul Newman and Robert Redford vehicle “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” has long been a unifying favorite from the genre, and not simply because it gave us the term “butch.” The film’s outlaw buddy dynamic, and its tragic yet heroic ending, resonates deeply with the gender-transgressive kid — who is used to feeling alone and unseen. Most of us probably first watched the movie with our dads, making it all the more poignant.
Evoking the magic of this charged classic, “Cowboys” is a modern day buddy Western that puts the complicated father figure and his adoring trans kid at the center. The first feature from writer/director Anna Kerrigan, “Cowboys” is as sweeping in grand landscapes as it is delicate in scope. Kerrigan’s script keeps the focus tight on four main characters, effectively crafting a satisfying adventure into a subtle excavation of masculinity — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Steve Zahn plays Troy, a fun-loving but manic father who keeps his demons well hidden. He’s so natural and charismatic in the role, it’s easy to envision a swell of offers for complicated, sensitive dad roles in his future. The film opens as Troy takes in the grandiose Montana mountain ranges with his son Jo (Sasha Knight), a pensive kid with a luscious mop of blonde curls. Kerrigan was adamant about finding a trans or non-binary child actor for the role, and she hit the jackpot with Knight, who imbues Jo with a pert defiance and a sad wisdom beyond his years.
After borrowing a friend’s horse, father and son are on the move, eating cold beans and camping out under the stars. “Cowboys eat beans,” Jo says excitedly, the novelty of adventure not yet wearing thin. We quickly realize, however, that this bonding trip has darker undertones, as Jo’s mother Sally (Jillian Bell) starts panicking about his whereabouts. She reports him missing to the local police, and trusty detective Faith (Ann Dowd) is soon on the case.
Both Dowd and Bell are excellent with the naturalistic script, though their roles feel slightly underwritten compared to the compelling father/son duo. Their tense exchanges, with a distraught Sally berating Faith for not doing enough to find her child, are the only scenes that feel predictable in what is otherwise a delightful surprise of a film.
Even the flashback scenes, where we learn Jo was born a girl and Sally would like to keep it that way, benefit from a sparkling chemistry between Zahn and Bell. Both actors slip easily into the shoes of a working class married couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. As the rigid mother who forces Jo to wear dresses and play with dolls, Bell has the most difficult task, and she rises to the occasion while playing against her usual comedic type. Troy and Jo’s trek involves significant dramatic moments, but Sally’s grappling with Jo’s gender identity, while painful to witness, rises to greater emotional heights.
“No wonder she wants to be a goddamn boy. She thinks I’m a piece of shit,” she spits at Troy during an argument. While shopping, she won’t let Jo get the slingshot he so politely asks for. “God’s got the game plan,” is her only advice. Perhaps it’s because these scenes are so easily recognizable that they resonate more deeply; Sally’s reaction to her transgender son is unfortunately much more common than Troy’s affable acceptance.
Though he jokes at first, Troy is largely unfazed by Jo’s coming out, immediately taking him shopping for flannel button-ups. “This one looks just like Paul Newman,” he says excitedly, in an obvious shout-out to the movie’s cinematic forefather. His loving support motivates the kidnapping, subverting the usual narrative of the unstable dad absconding with the kid. Even though Jo is sometimes cold and hungry on their arduous journey, as we learn more about Jo’s home life, it becomes increasingly clear that he is safe with his dad in other ways — perhaps more important ones.
“Cowboys” hits familiar beats in the scenic progression toward an amiable denouement. To be sure, there are lovely surprises, including the image of Ann Dowd sitting gallantly atop a white horse — not to be forgotten anytime soon. Unlike Celine Sciamma’s unwavering 2011 film “Tomboy,” one of the best films about trans childhood ever made, “Cowboys” falters slightly by keeping Jo at a distance. He is present in all the scenes, but his perspective is elusive. The film takes a broader lens than the intimate story prescribes, but the final view is still a stunner.
“Cowboys” was set to premiere in the U.S. Narrative Competition section at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.