Fresh from the festival circuit is Anna Kerrigan’s tender family drama Cowboys, which cleverly challenges traditional Western values and expectations through a unique twist on the buddy Western formula. Gender and identity, along with the stigma around men’s mental health, is explored in this fascinating study of masculinity.
The first feature from writer/director Kerrigan, which is set in present-day Montana, quickly establishes the dividing reactions pf parents who’s child expresses depression due to the belief they were born in the wrong body. In an attempt to help his 11-year-old trans child (Sasha Knight) escape from his controlling mother (Jillian Bell), the two set off on a trek to the Canadian border thanks to a half-baked plan. In his misguided attempt to help his child live freely as a boy, the father-son adventure soon attracts media attention and quickly becomes a race against time with the police hot on their heels.
This powerful and heartwarming drama effectively portrays the struggles trans children face as they come out to their parents, particularly in such a traditional part of America. It’s a fascinating and delicate character study, delving into the parent’s complicated and volatile marriage, the big-hearted Troy’s struggles with bi-polar disease and the blossoming father-son relationship. The film features a number of quiet but powerful moments such as Jo coming out to his father, along with Sally coldly denying to buy Jo a slingshot, citing “God’s got the game plan” as her basis. The complex emotion and observations are sensitively handled and well balanced with the exciting sense of adventure as the father-son duo ride out on a horse, camp out under the stars and eat the usual camping food: “cowboys eat beans,” Jo excitedly says. As Sally begins to worry about the whereabouts of her child, she enlists the help of local detective Faith (Ann Dowd), shifting the rambling nature of the film to a more Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-esque chase.
The ensemble cast really are a true delight, sensitively bringing the script to life. Steve Zahn shines as the misguided but hugely accepting father, sharing a brilliant dynamic full of heart with Sasha Knight’s Jo. Zahn is hugely charismatic and certainly rivals Pedro Pascal in the protective father department! Trans actor Knight also impresses as Jo, bringing plenty of depth and emotion to the tricky role, and the two make for the more compelling partnership of the film. Bell does well to play against her usual comedic roles, with a complicated and layered performance as a conservative mother who struggles to accept her child’s changing gender identity. Dowd is as brilliant as usual, particularly when she magnificently swoops in on a white steed, but her and Bell’s roles do feel somewhat underwritten in comparison.
However, the script does fail at times to show Jo’s perspective, instead taking a larger look at the effects on the family as a whole, as opposed to a more introspective transformative study. Despite the occasional omission, Kerrigan’s feature really strides once the central duo head out on their cowboy adventure. The rugged and wild landscapes are truly beautiful, and wonderfully captured in a number of sweeping long shots. As the duo persist and progress on their journey, there’s a number of impressively shot action sequences which will keep you gripped and on the edge of your seat.
With a beautiful central message of acceptance and loving a person’s truly authentic self, Cowboys is a timely and moving drama lovingly brought to life by a wonderful central cast. Definitely one of my highlights from this year’s BFI Flare Festival.