A film review by Craig J. Koban March 9, 2021


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.  

What 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. 

That, 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."  

Well, Joe would later call a massive audible on that.



COWBOYS 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.

In 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.

That, 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. 

The trio of actors here give universally superb performances, with Zhan in particular being a standout in the sense that he's often a far better actor than he usually gets accolades for when given just the right role to make his own.  Bell herself is quite refined here and thanklessly dials in her comedic proclivities and instead finds a surprisingly amount of pathos and depth with her delicate role.  And young Sasha Knight imbues Joe with the right blend of concern, vulnerability, and tenacity.  It should also be noted that COWBOYS looks staggeringly good at times as a travelogue picture that explores its Northwestern landscapes in all of their breathtaking splendor.  This film does suffer a tad from being perhaps too short and padded for its own good in terms of the type of elaborate thematic ground its exploring (it also seems to rush towards a hastily realized and neatly tied up conclusion).  Yet, Kerrigan's effort here is fearlessly ambitious as a decontructivist take on the western and one of the rare ones from a female director prerogative.  On top of that, COWBOYS tells a delicate rendered and authentically grounded portrayal of a kid dealing with the pressures and confusion associated with growing up in an unstable environment.  There's a lot going on in Kerrigan's rookie film, but she handles it all with the grace and confidence of a veteran director, making her one to watch moving forward. 

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