2021, R, 89 mins
Steve Zhan as Troy / Jillian Bell as Sarah / Sasha Knight as Joe / Ann Dowd as Detective Erickson
Written and directed by Anna Kerrigan
In the early stages, COWBOYS makes audiences think they're getting one kind of film, but then it slowly, but surely changes course and radically becomes about something else entirely, thusly defying our expectations.
initially begins as what appears to be a story about a father plagued with
mental health issues and his snatching away of his young daughter from his
estranged wife becomes an LGBT themed tale of the liberation of said
transgender child, a girl that desires to live as a boy...or cowboy in
this story's case. Written
and directed with a startling freshness of approach by newcomer Anna
Kerrigan (making her feature filmmaking debut), COWBOYS is a modernist
neo-Western unlike anything I - and most likely you - have ever seen
before, and the manner that it tries to turn the genre's stale conventions
upside down makes for endlessly provocative cinema.
and it's a searing and thought-provoking drama that rather audaciously
casts lead stars Steve Zhan and Jillian Bell, two actors that are perhaps
best known for their more mainstream comedic roles, but here they show
just how well they can acclimate to their respective against-type roles. Zhan portrays Troy, an ex-con recently separated from his
wife in Sally (Bell) and their daughter in Joe (Sasha Knight) and is
battling all kinds of metal distress after his recent imprisonment. Now back on the outside, he tries to adjust himself back into
his former family unit, but Sally will have no of it.
Their marriage suffered from multiple setbacks and is now at an
irreparable stage, and with the ever increasingly desperate Troy trying to
find ways to see and spend time with his daughter, Sally starts to become
more aggressively guarded by the day.
One morning as she wakes up and readies herself for work she
notices to her frightened astonishment that Joe is nowhere to be found.
She fears that Troy has kidnapped her.
Of course and in Troy's mind, he never ruthlessly took his daughter against her will, but rather took her away to force his ex-wife's hand for future child custody purposes. Joe seems like a fairly willing participant as well and seems to enjoy her father's company, even though his behavior is recklessly erratic and requires constant medication. Making their way to Canada and hoping to show Joe the true pioneering cowboy way of life in the wild, Troy makes an unexpected discovery along the way: The pre-teen Joe has no desire to live life as a girl and would rather exist as a transgender boy. Joe takes it in stride as a tomboy phase in Joe's life, but she quickly shuts that rhetoric down. "I'm not a tomboy! A tomboy's just another type of girl. I'm not a girl," Joe screams to her startled dad. Joe quickly sees that his daughter means business about her desires and needs and soon supports her in her endeavor, whereas her frazzled mother back home isn't so convinced. In one of the film's many flashbacks, she calmly, but forcibly instructs her daughter, "You've got one body. You got one path and God's got a game plan."
Joe would later call a massive audible on that.
opens with an aura of mystery in the early stages, especially when it
comes to Troy and Joe's journey and how that relates to Sally back home.
Kerrigan makes solid usage of flashbacks to allow for audiences to
begin to fill in all of the details about this family's tumultuous history
together and to provide some insight into Troy's damaged headspace and
Joe's unwillingness to stay confined by gender labels.
As the film begins to unfold we begin to learn the more troublesome
elements of Troy's battle with anger management and his addiction to
pills, but we also discover that he has made attempts to go clean so he
can be a loving and nurturing father to Joe.
COWBOYS also becomes largely about the good ol' boy in Troy trying
to comprehend and accept Joe's personal choices.
Even though he can't quite grasp it, he nevertheless tries to
support her decision as best as he can under the dire situation he's
placed himself in with her.
many respects, COWBOYS reminded me an awful lot of this year's Apple TV+
movie PALMER, another drama about a small
town country man attempting to navigate his way through the tricky waters
of empathizing and nurturing a child that's going on a similar gender
journey as Joe. I think that Kerrigan goes a bit more compellingly deeper
here, though, especially in the way that her film adds on the added
subtext of placing her characters and their dilemmas within macho western
genre archetypes. COWBOYS
certainly works as a manhunt picture and a tale of a family being torn
apart, but it almost becomes more concerned with Joe's gender
non-conforming reveal and what that means to both of her parents.
More importantly, Joe has to challenge archaic constructs of what
makes a cowboy a cowboy while simultaneously trying her best to
enlighten and convince her mother and father as to the validity of her
choice. In terms of
timeliness of the larger conversation about LGBT rights and the struggles
of LGBT kids, COWBOYS brings an awful lot of relevance to the table.
and the film speaks towards other complicated issues with a nuance and
tact, like how parents engage in protection mode in different ways when
dealing with the frictions of domestic upheaval. There have been countless
films about the limitless ordeals that mothers and fathers go through
while wading through the legal waters of guardianship, and this story, in
some respects, traverses across familiar ground.
Where COWBOYS stands proudly apart from the pact, though, is in its
unique character dynamics and how democratic it is with asking viewers to
understand all of these characters. Troy
faces a constant uphill battle for legitimacy and to be taken seriously as
a well meaning paternal figure (despite his unlawful actions), and his
committed yearning to accept his trans son is commendable, to say the
least. However, Kerrigan
doesn't go out of her way to make Bell's mother figure a de facto villain
of the piece. Sally most
certainly is not as enlightened as her former husband on the trans
recognition front, and many scenes in the film show her fighting against
any notion that Joe has zero desire to exist as a girl.
But Sally is not an evil woman, just a frustrated and ignorant one,
and in her anguish over Joe's disappearance she simply can't find ways to
process the unavoidable truth as to her child's real self.
Lesser films would have forcefully taken sides and tried to forge a
more simplistic black and white portrayal of these parents in conflict,
but COWBOYS asks us to empathize with both of these flawed characters,
which is to its credit. And
much of the film's runtime gives us a portal into Joe's perspective on
everything. Not only does he have to deal with combative parents,
but he also has to do so while becoming more self-actualized about who he
is in the process, and with the fear having those closest to him not
understanding at all.