Cowboys is a heartfelt and thrilling debut from writer and director Anna Kerrigan. Troy (Steve Zahn), newly-separated from his wife Sally (Jillian Bell), escapes with their transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) into the Montana wilderness. At first glance Cowboys looks deceptively like all the clichés we get from films of this ilk – unsurprisingly, the central conflict is Troy’s whole-hearted support of Joe and Sally’s reluctance to accept Joe as he is. Unsurprisingly, Joe’s transition is slightly over-simplified and not exactly nuanced. Unsurprisingly, Ann Dowd nearly steals the show as Detective Faith Erickson (and unsurprisingly, it does sound like a CSI soundbite every time she says it). But beneath all that is a moving portrait of the ties that bind us, and is a stellar re-ignition of the dying Western genre.
Both Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell work seamlessly together to create one beating heart of a performance. Though their characters begin at odds, the performances they bring out in one another serve to make their resolutions even sweeter. When you mix in Sasha Knight, and his wonderfully perceptive turn as cowboy-obsessed Joe, you have a trifecta of blended and stirring displays of the complexities of familial bonds.
With the rugged Montana skyline, it was never a doubt that Cowboys would be aesthetically pleasing, yet cinematographer John Wakayama Carey takes it a step further. Capturing both the places and spaces of rural Montana, Carey creates some truly breathtaking shots – but not just in the wilderness. The camera creeps in on Joe at home, where he feels small and unsure. It goes handheld and shaky when Troy and Sally fight. It opens up and becomes still and wide as Joe and Troy escape into the vast forests. Carey creates a fascinating visual lingo, with vernacular for each character, which allows for a depth and texture to Cowboys that not many films can quite capture.
Cowboys has so much more going for it than just its plot and performances. Most endearing of all is how genuinely kindhearted it is; it doesn’t punish any of its characters, and the seldom seen understanding leant to both mental illness and the transgender experience is refreshing. Considering the countless films that exist that portray being transgender as being awash with pain and trauma, it was thoroughly enjoyable to see Joe escape that fate, and get a happy ending to boot.
Admittedly, Kerrigan’s script isn’t flawless. Joe, for example, is always held at a distance from the audience. We never really get to know him outside of his adventure with his dad and the weeks leading up to it. Which is a shame because Sasha Knight is an incredible actor, and Kerrigan knows this, entrusting pretty much the final act to him. Though child-actors can be hit-or-miss, Knight has all the delightful innocence of children with an incredible handle on emotions. Never did anything feel too forced or hammy: in fact, his rapport with Steve Zahn was so strong and their performances so wonderfully complimentary, at times it felt eerily reminiscent of my own adventures with my father.
Perhaps if I had seen this another year I would have called it clichéd or overly sweet. Maybe it’s COVID, or maybe not, even though Cowboys certainly doesn’t take too many risks, it was one of the most tender and poignant films I’ve seen all year. I went to see this film for Steve Zahn but I stayed for everything else- because Kerrigan’s script, coupled with expert casting and some great cinematography, made it one of the best debuts of 2021, and a sparkling addition both to LGBTQ+ films and the Western genre.