Our heroes have always been cowboys, to misquote Waylon Jennings; Anna Kerrigan’s drama is no old-school Wild West tale, but a strikingly simple tale of today’s transgender issues for teens. That might sound like hard work, but it’s not, because the beauty of this film is in the conception. We might expect an aging cowboy to feel even older when he finds out his son wants to wear a dress. But how might he feel if his daughter wants to be a cowboy like him?
That’s the reversal we have here. Steve Zahn plays Troy, the ex-husband of Sally (Jillian Bell) and dad to Joe (Sasha Knight). The viewer might wonder out loud whether Joe is a boy or a girl; the film makes it clear that Joe wants to be seen as a boy. Sally doesn’t want to buy Joe a comic-book about cowboys, or a lasso and six-gun combo from the dime store, and hopes it’s just a phase that Joe is going through. But Joe wants to be a boy, and a cowboy, and Troy sneaks the kid through a back window and off on an adventure. Rescuing Joe from a rushing river means that Troy loses his medication, and with the law closing in in the form of a detective (the ever reliable Ann Dowd), the time for father and son to bond is ever shortening.
Many well-meaning but tiresomely convoluted films have been made on transgender issues since Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda; it’s a subject that brings out the civics lecturer in film-makers. Kerrigan skips the piety by locating her story on a fault-line of misunderstanding between men and women; many misunderstand transgender issues to be about stereotypes, but Joe actually wants to be a cowboy, and that rebellion suits Troy and not Sally. While the police search for her child, Sally fills a supermarket trolley with cowboy toys, realising that blocking her child’s development was never going to work. Both adults have their flaws, but neither has the right to ruin their child’s life, and Cowboys derives considerable narrative weight from their schism.
If there’s a flaw, it’s wider than this particular film. Recent movies have explored black rights, gay rights, transgender rights, but women’s rights seem to be the least developed or discussed outside of Promising Young Woman; that’s a shame, because movies are a great way of changing minds. The force with which many transgender advocates argue their case seems to have the opposite effect, putting open-minded people off; Kerrigan’s film is gentle, thoughtful and a great basis for us to debate how to ensure transgender people have the same opportunities as everyone else, without taking the same precious rights away from others. Out from May 7th 2021 on Curzon in the UK.
Thanks to Blue Finch Films and Curzon for early access.