REVIEW: Cowboys (BFI Flare 2021)
When it comes to trans visibility, mainstream entertainment narratives have a tendency to lean towards showcasing adults’ stories. This then leaves a gaping hole when it comes to stories of young people navigating their gender identity, unfortunately unconsciously feeding into this belief that children are “too young to know.” Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys does a beautiful job of abolishing this discourse, as the piece follows slightly unstable father Troy (Steve Zahn) and his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) travelling through the wilderness that is the Montana mountains, en route to Canada, in hopes to take Joe away from his unsupportive mother and home environment. Of course, you can only get so far on the run, especially if the media press is seeking out the lost child of a concerned mother. The core cast are truly authentic and carry the story well, and Cowboys does well to affirm its place as a heartwarming watch. If you liked Hunt for the Wilderpeople, then this film is perfect for you.
The story begins with Sally (Jillian Bell) realising that her child has gone missing, the only remnants of them being the cool breeze blowing through the curtains and into the bedroom. It is every mother’s worst nightmare, yet as we learn more about the power plays at work, it is likely that your sympathies will remain solely with Sally. Troy, now Sally’s ex-partner, has aided Joe’s escape and they both set off to live a life as cowboys, out in the wild, hiding from societal expectations and the law. The contrast between the small town and the wide open spaces out in nature are very telling of how our central duo feel a sense of liberation with the outside world than as part of their local community. Neither of them seem to fit their designated roles comfortably, thus they share a strong connection bond.
Cowboy’s unshakeable strength lies in its authentic approach to the resistance felt by some parents, who somehow believe that they always have their children’s best interests at heart when in actuality they end up causing more damage than they could ever imagine. Its portrayal of a complex family dynamic is riveting and although Kerringan’s work presents a rather painful scenario, through various flashbacks we are fed more information regarding Sally’s flat-out refusal to let Joe buy cowboy toys, let alone to identify as the opposite gender. The realism that lies within the mother’s sheer denial of Joe’s feelings is upsetting at the best of times, and is only amplified by the state-wide search for him, using his deadname and old photos where he is female-presenting. To use the media as a klaxon of body dysmorphia is impactful, and amplifies the lack of consideration for Joe’s true self.
Troy’s character has good intentions to his core, and it is clear as day that he will do anything expected of him – or rather, what he deems as expected from him – in hopes to support Joe and help him grow up. Putting Troy and Joe essentially opposite each other on screen is a beautifully simplistic way to cement this belief that age is not always a definitive factor in how people act and feel. True connection with your identity and those around you can be particularly hard to come by, and as and when you are ready to welcome those moments with open arms, your world is likely to become a rewarding place to be. One thing that the main trio have in common is how they all (eventually) choose to embrace the unknown, the unbeaten track that lies ahead of them in hopes to retain their family bond. Life tends to be better when shared and celebrated with loved ones, and sometimes some distance can offer reflection you were not aware of how in denial you were of.
Cowboys is a well-rounded family drama that simultaneously offers the pleasure from a road trip film or western, and the uncomfortable conundrum felt by transphobic people when faced with someone close to them being transgender. It neither excuses the behaviour nor aggressively demonisies it, but portrays the conflict in such a way that is accessible and recognisable – an important story indeed. Sometimes, children know early on, and that’s definitely something to celebrate, and unfortunately more often than you care to think there are guardians who make their lives particularly difficult, especially if they cannot fully comprehend feeling like you do not belong in your own body. Navigating your own identity can sometimes feel like being out in the Wild West, but living your authentic truth is a gift not all the loot in the world couldn’t buy.