It would have been so very easy for a film such as Cowboys to wobble and rapidly stumble into maudlin melodrama territory. Director Anna Kerrigan avoids any such soap operatics or sickly sweet sentimentality, driving her material with compassion and conviction. Its themes are substantial; its focus is intimate; and the end result is really rather moving.
Troy (Steve Zahn) kidnaps his 11-year-old son Joe (Sasha Knight) and the two set off across the (ravishing) wilds of Montana en route to Canada, leaving Joe’s distraught mother Sally (Jillian Bell) in their wake. However, as far as Sally is concerned, Troy has kidnapped their daughter Josie, with her refusal to accept that Joe is transgender serving as the catalyst for Troy’s actions – although Troy’s bipolar disorder may have complicated his decision-making process, just as it complicated his marriage to Sally.
Steve Zahn plays Troy with an excitable warmth, sensibly avoiding the wide-eyed mania which is often the tedious go-to when playing a character affected by bipolar disorder – and his rapport with the impressive young Sasha Knight is quite poignant. It’s difficult not to be touched when Troy offhandedly calls Joe “son.” Such moments are gracefully simple – and the same can even be said for a shouting match between Troy and Sally, with each parent referring to their child with a different pronoun, practically weaponising words such as “he” and “she”.
As Sally, Jillian Bell (so excellent in Brittany Runs a Marathon) has the most thankless task – and her refusal to accept anything beyond the gender binary comes across as a tad mechanical. It’s understood that this conformity is so ingrained as to be initially unquestioned, but it would have been better if her outlook was explored in greater depth. It’s not as though the movie would have been weighed down by it, since the story unfolds in just over an hour and twenty minutes. Yet Sally isn’t as simplistic as her reaction suggests and the character remains sympathetic in her almost numb denial.
Perhaps Cowboys is a little patchy in places, but any inconsistencies are hard to fault when the payoff is this emotionally rewarding.
Cowboys is released digitally on demand on 7th May 2021.
Watch the trailer for Cowboys here: