‘Cowboys’ review: powerful trans drama lassos truth from pain

When Joe's mum refuses to let him live as his authentic self, he takes to the wilderness

Film Latest

    View All

    Hollywood Westerns often focus on brooding, middle-aged male heroes – stubborn and frustrated alphas seeking out a life far from the beaten track, usually with only their horse and guns for company. Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys is different. Part family drama and part coming of ager, it’s a complex tale about a young transgender boy, his unstable father and narrow-minded mother.

    When Joe tells his dad Troy (Steve Zahn): “Sometimes I think aliens put me in a girl’s body as a joke,” Troy laughs along at first, admiring his offspring’s sense of humour. But slowly the truth sinks in, and years of misunderstanding – which led to the unravelling of his marriage to Joe’s mum, Sally (Jillian Bell) – give way to a difficult but ultimately more truthful chapter in the family’s life.

    Joe’s parents argue about their son and at one point – when Joe’s mum refuses to let him live as his authentic self – troubled but well-intentioned Troy takes him off into the Montana wilderness. The domestic back and forth gives Cowboys a bumpy dramatic arc that feels bold and inventive but also slightly confusing. This isn’t a straightforward story of an underdog triumphing against all odds – Kerrigan is too empathetic a filmmaker to dumb her subject matter down.

    CREDIT: Blue Finch Releasing

    Cast-wise, Zahn and Bell both give stirring accounts – Bell in particular excels with a difficult character that’s a far cry from her usual peppy roles (see 22 Jump Street, Rough Night). But it’s newcomer Sasha Knight, as Joe, who steals the movie – a fearless leading turn from a young star with a bright future.

    Specifically, Knight’s quietly powerful performance helps highlight an oft ignored truth: that growing up is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Kerrigan leans into this with a messy narrative and some moving scenes. There are none of the antiquated tropes of cowboy films here: no burgeoning egos and no triumphant finales – only raw emotions. It does lack a clean-cut ending – but that’s because Joe’s story isn’t over, he has his whole life ahead of him. Hopefully, some viewers going through a similar struggle will find that comforting.


    • Director: Anna Kerrigan
    • Starring: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight
    • Release date: May 7 (Digital Download, Curzon Home Cinema)

    More Film Stories: