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.
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)