Director: Anna Kerrigan
Screenwriter: Anna Kerrigan
Starring: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight
Cowboys is one of those remarkable little films that slowly creeps up on you. With breathtaking scenery and a stellar cast to grab and hold your attention, it seems to present itself as a classic American road movie. However, over time, Cowboys’ emotional impact begins to grow and grow until, when you least expect it, it bursts out of you and transforms towards far deeper dimensions. Cowboys is a very well-crafted and unexpected delight.
The second feature from screenwriter-director Anna Kerrigan (Five Days Gone, 2010), Cowboys stars the ever-welcome and always brilliant Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell. It won awards for both Best Screenplay and Best Actor at the Tribeca Film Festival (2020), and given the quality on offer across its 83 minute runtime, it is very deserving of both. The film opens with Troy (Zahn) and his son, Joe (Sasha Knight), gazing out at the spectacular Montana landscape, apparently on a camping trip that will take them up to the Canadian border. As they continue happily on their way, the film cuts to Sally (Bell), Joe’s mother, who is shocked to find Joe gone and immediately calls the police to report him missing. There’s an innate and odd sense of mystery to the first ten minutes as Sally seems so obviously distraught, but Troy doesn’t seem to be any threat to the son he has apparently kidnapped. This raises two key questions: is this a kidnapping, or is it an escape? And, what are they running from?
Cowboys is presented with these two questions in mind and does an excellent job of balancing the perspectives of both parents. A lot of the narrative is told in flashback, where we are reintroduced to Joe as Josie, daughter to Troy and Sally. Josie is clearly uncomfortable in her skin, she’s always desperate to tear off any dress she’s put in and she’d much rather spend her time playing cowboys. While Troy is happy to humour his daughter and regale her with stories of old Western adventurers, Sally feels she’s losing her connection with Josie and tries desperately to force this behaviour out of her. When Josie finally comes out as Joe to his father, the child is immediately accepted by Troy, though unfortunately his mother is not so understanding. There’s a real poignancy in Kerrigan’s choice of the Montana setting, for Joe is clearly enamoured with his state’s cultural history (this being cowboy country after all), yet because he was born female his change is deemed unacceptable by his mother and her very binary view on gender. Without having to overlabour the script, Kerrigan very succinctly crafts the sense that Joe feels he belongs neither in his body nor in his home.
What could simply be a case of a narrative centred on the wanted escape from targeted abuse by a person persecuted for their supposed difference, Cowboys evolves and shifts as it grows, Kerrigan’s narrative focusing less on the drama of the child and turning instead to the parents. What emerges is a very honest and heartbreaking depiction of a couple struggling to understand what is best for their child. Sally, quite understandably, feels that Troy’s total acceptance of Joe is making her into the villain of Joe’s story, while Troy doesn’t appear to be as perfect as we had first expected. Joe is caught between two parents who are each trying to do the right thing, but who ultimately both end up behaving inappropriately.
Both Bell and Zahn turn in brilliant, nuanced performances, taking deceptively simple characters and adding depth and complexity to them as the narrative progresses. Newcomer Sasha Knight also makes a seriously impressive debut as Joe and is often key in bringing out the best moments of his on-screen parents’ performances. Anna Kerrigan’s film is a simple but thorny family drama that manages to effectively blend the worlds of child and adult, revealing how easy it is for children to take on adult responsibilities in the face of the childish decisions made by their parents. Cowboys is as much about a period of transition from confusion to acceptance and understanding for Joe’s parents as it is for Joe himself, a sophisticated and enticing family portrait painted for the screen.
Written by Jack Cameron
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