Due to world premiere at last month’s Tribeca, Anna Kerrigan’s contemporary western Cowboys went on to win two jury awards in the festival’s U.S. narrative competition, with Steve Zahn taking best actor and Kerrigan winning for her screenplay.
As the film opens we take in some breathtaking vistas of rural Montana, beautifully captured by cinematographer John Wakayama Carey. It is “so pretty, it’s almost too much”, says Troy (Steve Zahn) who is apparently on a camping trip with his 10 year-old trans son Joe (Sasha Knight). It quickly becomes clear though that the pair is in fact on the run, headed for the Canadian border on a stolen horse. Meanwhile Joe’s mother, and Troy’s estranged wife, Sally (Jillian Bell) is distraught when she wakes to find that her child is missing. She soon receives a visit from a police detective, the no-nonsense Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd), leading to a nationwide amber alert and the distribution of an old photograph of Joe (with long hair and wearing a dress) supplied by Sally, who is in denial that Joe is trans.
Beginning in the present, with father and son the run, the screenplay’s skilfully woven structure takes us back and forth at various points throughout the narrative to give us a deeper understanding of the current situation, adding a richness to the characters. We learn in one of the flashbacks that Troy experiences manic episodes which have previously landed him in trouble with the cops, so it’s concerning when he accidentally loses his medication on the trek to Canada. Joe quickly becomes aware of the change in his father’s behaviour, but Troy’s mental health issues never come to define the man, it’s just one aspect of who he is, and well-handled by Zahn. Similarly, Joe’s own realisation that he is trans and his parents’ differing reactions are all sensitively handled and wisely don’t become the film’s sole focus.
There’s a gently powerful, visceral scene set in a bowling alley, where we see Joe tune out the adult women sitting behind him and focus on the men as they bowl. Their belt buckles, flannel shirts, the way they move and speak and interact with one another all fascinate this young child as he’s discovering who he is. During another delicately handled flashback sequence we witness a moving conversation, made all the more intimate by occurring in the confines of Troy’s truck, where Joe first tells his dad that he knows he’s a boy. The scene is unhurried, as Troy takes in what he’s being told and it represents the compassion with which this touching father/child bond is portrayed throughout, with engaging chemistry between the actors.
Discovered with the help of Transparent casting director Eyde Belasco, trans actor Sasha Knight in his first professional acting role, delivers natural, nuanced work as Joe as he experiences this extraordinary few days, creating one of those wise beyond their years, yet still a child performances reminiscent of Tatum O’Neal’s Oscar winning turn in Paper Moon. Steve Zahn brings a captivating rugged sensitivity to this loving and accepting working class father, while Bell, best known for her often outlandish but grounded comedy, proves she’s equally adept at serious drama. In other hands Sally might have been villainised, but Bell humanises the woman and allows us to empathise with what’s she is going through as a mother, whether or not we agree with her actions. Ann Dowd, who brings such depth to every role she plays, makes a real impact with her few scenes here and her detective makes me yearn for a spin-off series with her character solving different crimes each episode, along with her goofy police sidekick. Please can we make this happen?
Although Cowboys handles parents coming to terms with having a trans child well (GLAAD consulted on the film), this is a compelling character driven piece that’s thankfully never in danger of feeling like an “issues film”. A genuine indie, it’s a credit to Anna Kerrigan that her screenplay attracted such a first rate cast and that under her direction the limited budget (under 1 million dollars) never shows on screen for a moment, partly thanks to the stunning Montana locations. At a time when trans people are under attack from this administration, being murdered on our streets and even shunned by some within their own LGBTQ+ community, Cowboys‘ portrayal of unexpected familial acceptance and understanding gives us some hope for the future.
By James Kleinmann
Cowboys was due to world premiere at the postponed Tribeca 2020. It won the festival’s U.S. Narrative Competition jury awards for Best Actor for Steve Zahn and Best Screenplay for Anna Kerrigan.