Synopsis: Cowboys (Kerrigan, 2020) is set in a small, rural American town, where contemporary issues like gender dysphoria and mental health aren’t openly discussed. Troy (Steve Zahn), and his transgender son, Joe (Sasha Knight), set off on a ‘wild west’ adventure when they hatch a half-baked scheme to escape the judgement and persecution of small-town life. However, Joe’s mother, Sally (Jillian Bell), isn’t wise to the plan and the local authorities are quickly notified. It then becomes a race against time to bring, Troy and Joe, safely home before they fall foul of a trigger-happy police force.
As with Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005), Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys tells its story in a classically American genre, the Western. As with Lee’s film, the adoption of the Western is a savvy move; by discussing contemporary topics like gender dysphoria, the transgender community and mental health, in a genre that is steeped in Americana, the director is hoping to engage the empathy of an audience that otherwise, might not give the film a chance.
Cowboys is a quintessential American indie with a small but extremely talented cast, with most of the heavy lifting being done by Steve Zahn (Troy) and Sasha Knight (Joe). Joe was assigned female gender at birth, but as Joe has grown, he has slowly come to the realisation that he is a boy trapped in a girl’s body.
Quintessential American indie
Gender dysphoria is never named within the film, but Joe expresses his desire to be recognised as a boy, not a girl. Unsurprisingly, it’s this that is the catalyst for the film’s core tension, specifically, it is Joe’s mother, Sally, played by Jillian Bell, who refuses to accept Joe’s chosen identity. This is set up via flashbacks. Despite Joe being more interested in playing cowboys, Sally enthusiastically tries to convince him to play with Barbie dolls and dress him up in dresses.
Unsurprisingly, it is Troy that Joe first tells that he is a boy. To his father’s credit, there is an acceptance of that almost immediately. Troy is certainly shocked, but Joe has always been a tomboy, so once the initial surprise wears off, he quickly address Joe as his son, and importantly, encourages Sally to do the same. Sadly, this isn’t something that Sally is ready to accept and in a moment of anger, she hits Joe. It is this moment that causes the father and son to run away, heading towards the Canadian border.
Troy’s easy acceptance of his son’s declaration about being a transgender boy could be viewed as contrived. However, Kerrigan inserts a plot surrounding Troy and his mental health that gives Zahn’s character an additional layer that connotes his own ‘otherness’ – mirroring Joe. In a lesser actor’s hands, this could have stood out more for what it is, a contrivance, but Zahn does a masterful job of building multiple layers to Troy’s character.
A sense of being
Sahsa Knight also deserves praise because Zahn’s character wouldn’t work nearly as well if the child actor working alongside him wasn’t convincing. She deserves credit for imbuing Joe with a real sense of being and does a tremendous job of portraying a character that would be challenging for most adult actors.
I think of the three main actors it is Jillian Bell, as Sally, that is the most under served by the film’s script. She provides the resistance, the reluctance to accept Joe’s chosen identity, but the actor is playing second fiddle to the main attraction of Zahn and Knight. That isn’t a criticism of Bell’s acting, it’s merely that she provides the catalyst for the adventure that Troy and Joe will embark on.
Cowboys is unlikely to muster the same level of attention that Brokeback Mountain received. However, as with that film, because of its genre trappings, it’s likely to bring the issues of gender dysphoria, trans rights and mental health to a much wider audience. Whether you’re a fan of the Western or not, Kerrigan’s film should be applauded for trying to increase awareness about these issues. What’s more, and wonderfully so, it’s further proof of Roger Ebert’s concept, that cinema is a machine for generating empathy.
Note on Gender Dysphoria:
According to the NHS, gender dysphoria “describes a sense of unease that a person may have because of a mismatch between their biological sex and their gender identity.”
Gender Dysphoria Support:
If you’re a young person or parent/guardian of a young person affected by gender dysphoria, please visit the Gender Identity Development Service website for information about support.
Further info: https://gids.nhs.uk/about-us
Mental Health Support:
If you or somebody you know is affected by issues relating to mental health, please visit Mind’s website to learn about what support is available.
Further info: https://www.mind.org.uk/
Cowboys (Kerrigan, 2020) is being screened as part of the BFI’s Flare Film Festival, which is taking place between the 17th and 28th of March 2021.
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