Written and directed by Anna Kerrigan, a troubled but well-intentioned father who has recently separated from his wife runs off with his trans son into the Montana wilderness after his ex-wife’s refusal to let their son live as his authentic self. Starring: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds and Bob Stephenson.
The film starts out on a very interesting note, challenging your preconceptions about gender and purposely shaping your perception of the story to begin its exploration of transgender youth. It leaves a strong impression to begin with, then flows perfectly throughout, the writing balances the different issues between: self-identity, acceptance and mental health. It leaves you in limbo while understanding the decisions of Troy’s (Zahn) attempts to protect his child but ultimately being reckless, it’s a very emotional turn from one perspective to the other. There’s a few twists and turns to their journey so it’s constantly moving forward at a great pace. It has a both satisfying and intensely sad path to its story which creates something very sweet, but what really is the key is that it’s always on Joe’s (Knight) side, he’s a boy and shouldn’t have to pretend to be anything he’s not to please his mother or anyone else. That sort of support and understanding from his father, is a pleasure to watch.
It’s also absolutely fantastic that Joe is played a trans actor, Sasha Knight who is uniquely qualified to understand his plight and conveys that into his performance wonderfully. It’s a heavy role to lay at a child’s feet but he gives a very strong, emotional and touching portrayal. Although Steve Zahn is the real surprise here, undoubtedly the strongest performance he’s ever given, it’s incredible, intense and heart-breaking. For anyone mostly familiar with his work in comedy, this will be an eye-opener to his sincere talent and you can only hope there will be more roles like this in his future. Jillian Bell and Ann Dowd are similarly great additions, it would have been even better to see them get more time on screen but they both get the chance to hit emotional notes and add to the story. Not to mention that casting Dowd is always a brilliant decision because she’s invaluable talent, her subtlety and grace in this role is perfection.
Shooting in such a picturesque location as Montana, the mountains, rivers, lakes, woods, you can’t really ask for a better way to inject an automatic atmosphere into your film. That’s not to say the direction doesn’t do well even without that, it’s extremely consistent throughout but when it moves onto that setting it pushes everything to a higher level. The beautiful landscapes, the great cinematography and the directorial choices to make the most of both, create a place for the emotions of the story to be emphasised even more.
Cowboys is an engaging, emotional and very accessible story of a young trans boy. There are moments where you do want a little more from it than it’s prepared to give but that doesn’t undermine its value. Kerrigan’s writing and direction create something that plays around with familiar styles of drama but uses them in an individual way. Steve Zahn gives an all-time best performance that will make you appreciate him even more and the relationship that they create between him and Sasha Knight as Joe is something special to watch. It’s one of several films at this year’s Flare festival which shows the importance of trans people having a supportive family and the freedom to be who they are.