Winner of the U.S. Narrative Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, writer/director Anna Kerrigan has delivered a touching story of a family struggling through complex issues with Cowboys, her sophomore feature. Set in the Montana wilderness, the movie concerns a father, Troy (Steve Zahn, that Best Actor winner), and mother, Sally (Jillian Bell), who have opposing reactions when their assigned female at birth child, Joe (Sasha Knight), reveals that he is a transgender boy. As Troy begins to deal with mental illness on top of the already simmering tensions, this family’s difficulties only seem to escalate, until Troy makes a decision that will irrevocably change everything.
Having been separated from his wife for a while, and spending a stint in jail for assaulting his brother-in-law, Troy shows up in the middle of the night to take Joe away, and the two go on a hiking trip through the mountainous terrain, planning to cross over into Canada. On paper, it’s a bit of an upsetting, almost melodramatic story, that would make for a Lifetime weepy of the week. In execution, Kerrigan finds emotional honesty, and deep reservoirs of humanity in all of these characters to make us understand that these are all real people simply trying to do their best.
When the movie opens, we get the impression that Troy is a bad man, having seen the state of Sally and Joe’s home the morning after she realizes that her son has been taken away from her. Distraught, she brings in the police, who launch an investigation led by Ann Dowd’s Faith that makes national attention as the days wear on. Slowly, Kerrigan peppers in flashbacks to get us to understand how things have gotten to the point we’re at now, and through these looks into the past we understand that maybe Sally isn’t the innocent victim here, and that Troy might not be the villain we could have initially assumed him to be.
When Joe realizes that he’s transgender, and reveals it to his parents, Troy first responds with laughter, misunderstanding Joe’s meaning, but then quickly shows support for his son, embracing his authentic self. Sally, meanwhile, rejects this notion, continuing to force Joe to be the daughter she thinks he’s “supposed” to be, creating many difficult to watch scenes as Joe struggles to get his mother to understand, while Sally stubbornly refuses to believe anything other than her conservative version of what is “correct”. Kerrigan did her research to get these relationships right, speaking to many people in the trans community who grew up in conservative families like Joe did, in locations like this where most people have never experienced (knowingly) being around a transgender person, let alone having to face the idea that their child is transgender.
Kerrigan’s commitment to authenticity followed through in every respect here, with her insistince on casting a transgender actor to play Joe. It seems fated for her to have found Sasha, a young trans boy who before living in Southern California had lived in a conservative town in Colorado. Sasha knew this world that Joe was living in, and imbued his character with the personal experience that shaped who he is as an actor. It’s a remarkable debut performance, more than holding his own with seasoned pros like Zahn and Bell. Kerrigan has a real knack for casting here, bringing in those two actors known primarily for comedies to play these parts that push them to dramatic limits, and they show the range that they’re capable of by making us believe every moment we spend with these characters.
It’s early on that we realize that Troy is much easier to root for than he initially appeared to be, and his relationship with Joe is often the beating heart of the movie. Sally is tougher to take, yet even from the beginning Kerrigan and Bell do an excellent job of bringing forth her humanity, despite her behaving terribly. We understand that her toxic views towards her son’s gender identity come from a place of ingrained cultural transphobia, of being afraid of something that she doesn’t understand. When Joe comes out to his parents, Sally seems almost jealous, blaming Troy for being the cool dad while Sally does all of the labor around the house, like washing dishes and doing laundry. “I wouldn’t want to be a woman either!”, she exclaims.
With this care to character development and empathy, Kerrigan allows us to understand where every one of these people are coming from. Even Faith, the no-nonsense cop trying to track Troy and Joe down, is portrayed in an atypical way, casting Dowd in the role that you’d often see given to a gruff veteran male actor. She has a gentleness to her, not something we’re used to seeing from Dowd who has been giving some of the most terrifying performances in film and television over the past ten years, and you can see that she truly cares about the well-being of these people, simply wanting to get everyone home safely. Gentle is actually a perfect way to describe Cowboys overall, a touching movie that gets to the heart of some heavy issues without drowning itself in manipulative misery. This is, above all else, a character piece, and Kerrigan demonstrates a real knack for creating believable, full-bodied human beings, portrayed by an ensemble of fantastic actors.