Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys is a family drama full of emotion and nuance that stays true to itself. This intimate story is as honest as they come.
Mentally troubled but well-intentioned Troy (Steve Zahn) has recently separated from his wife Sally (Jillian Bell), he takes his young transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) off through the mountains of Montana to make a break for Canada after Sally refuses to take Joe’s transition seriously. With the police hot on their tail, they try to keep a low profile, which is harder than they would ever hope.
While we follow the abduction in the present, we are allowed to see what caused Troy to take Joe away through the mountains. As we find out, Troy was simply doing what he thought was best for his son. As Detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) discovers more of these events in her investigation, she becomes the audience, learning and reacting as we do. She wants no harm to either male, and while all around her in the tactical team feel Troy is a danger to his son. When, in fact, the only person Joe feels safe around, despite their sparse predicament is his father.
Kerrigan’s naturalistic script allows Bell and Zahn to tone down their comedic talents. Bell surprises with how she grapples with Sally’s character, and towards the finale, you feel even more for her as she makes an important decision. The fact that all of the cast have terrific chemistry benefits Cowboys greatly; Bell and Zahn feel like a couple who have had their struggles, yet with their spark never truly dying away, they are emotional magnets to one another.
What is sometimes forgotten in all of Steve Zahn’s performances as the comedic side character is how good a dramatic actor he can be. His turn here has a lot of what you would expect from a standard Zayn performance with his facial reactions and well-crafted comedic timing. When we see Troy struggle with his illness, we see the true scope of Zahn’s capabilities. By sticking loyally with his son’s decision to come out as a male, Zahn captures magic with this charismatic yet complicated man.
With Kerrigan making sure to hire a child who was trans or non-binary so they could fully understand the complexities of the role (who better than someone currently going through it). A better sense of realism is brought to the film, and Sasha Knight does wonders here. Even if he isn’t given as much to do as we would like. His talents further show near the end of the film as Troy and Joe are inevitably tracked down. When Troy and Joe have their own argument your feelings pour out for him as not only is he dealing with a lot within his own body, but to witness his fathers decline as their trip continues to torture him further in his young mind.
Bell perhaps has the hardest job of all of the cast. Having to play a sympathetic character who is also as emotionally confused about her son’s decision as you would expect any parent to be. The fact Kerrigan decides to remove any violent tendencies from Sally (and Troy) towards Joe is greatly welcomed.
Her typically conservative mother performance allows for her turn to be all the more impactful. Sally loves her son dearly; she was just never prepared for what comes. She has several heartbreakingly honest scenes with Zahn, in which she puts the blame on him for Joe’s decision. The feeling that she has failed as a parent because she is too stern, so why would a girl want to still be a girl when their mother figure is continually the bad guy? Her confused nature bleeds out on the screen, and even if you are against her at the start, you feel for her.
This timely juxtaposition of having Joe reveal to his father the truth about his feelings towards his body first, and the fact that Troy accepts it immediately with Sally being the one to reject the change is refreshing. It is often the patriarch of the family who rejects the claims. So to have a father figure do everything for his son to be comfortable within himself brings more freedom to Cowboys. Yet as we know, children do not always have one accepting parent, never mind two. Yet Kerrigan writes Sally’s confusion and angst to Joe’s decision very well.
As mentioned, as well as the film does show the relationship between parents and their child in such a circumatance.Cowboys never delves in enough with Joe. As compelling as Zahn and Bell are as the differing parents, we need to see more of how everything is effecting Joe, especially considering how omnipresent he is in the film. More time viewing the film from his perspective are needed.
However, Cowboys is still an excellent picture and one that deserves to find its audience, and with some luck, it will. It is too good not to.
To view more of our coverage of BFI Flare, please check out our other reviews below.
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