“Cowboys” taps directly into the myth of the American male, with his leather boots and blue jeans, square jaw and wide stance, as immortalized in the collective imagination by painter Frederick Remington, director John Ford and decades of Marlboro tobacco advertising. But it does so with a twist: This debut feature from Anna Kerrigan explores how that tough-guy archetype impresses itself on a gender-nonconforming child. Who says that cowboys have to be boys? And that girls must stay girls?
Originally destined to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, until it was canceled by the coronavirus, “Cowboys” surfaced instead at Outfest and Frameline, two showcases whose LGBTQ focus tipped audiences that this picturesque run for the border isn’t your typical father-and-son wilderness trek. Here, the younger man has chosen that identity for himself, while the other struggles with bipolar disorder; they flee together on horseback across the Montana frontier for Canada, where a fresh starts seem possible.
The explanation for the duo’s motives doesn’t emerge until relatively deep into the movie, which introduces Joe (played by 11-year-old Sasha Knight) with hair cut short like his dad’s, so we think he’s a boy. In the opening scene, Joe’s mother (Jillian Bell) discovers a window open and her child missing, which prompts still more assumptions: that this is a more typical kidnapping, in which Troy (a scruffy Steve Zahn, in full billy-goat beard) snatched the kid for simple custody reasons. It’s disorienting, then, to see Joe looking completely different in the film’s first flashback, uneasily posing for family photos in a dress with long blond hair.
By all appearances, Joe’s much more comfortable in the masculine persona — though audiences will bring their own biases to how convincing they find Knight in either category. Whether certain individuals can “pass” as male or female has nothing to do with how they identify, but that’s an idea still foreign to much of America. Audiences, like Joe’s parents, may struggle as they scrutinize the mannerisms of both the character and the trans actor who portrays him. As Western stars go, Knight suggests a younger version of Mariette Hartley from “Ride the High Country,” both holding their own in a man’s world. It’s a courageous performance for someone so young, sure, but one wishes Knight were more convincing, not as either a boy or a girl, but in capturing the moods required of the character: sullen and withdrawn when forced to conform, sparking to life once he goes on the lam.
In its occasionally over-simplistic way, “Cowboys” uses the spectacular manhunt premise — an elaborate metaphor for asserting one’s independence and autonomy — to dramatize the challenge all trans children face in convincing their parents to accept them on their own terms. In some cases, a conversation does it. That’s all it takes for Troy to acknowledge Joe’s gender dysphoria. “Sometimes I think aliens put me into this girl body as a joke,” he tells him one night, after doing doughnuts with Dad in a dirt parking lot — one of those small-town activities that doesn’t find its way on screen very often, and a nice touch in a film that’s discreetly attuned to various underrepresented facets of the American experience (including class, religion and geography). Mom isn’t so easily convinced: “You can only be one person for your life,” she tells Joe. “You’ve got one body. You’ve got one path, and God’s got the game plan.”
These scenes, wherein Joe struggles to express what his parents insist on seeing as “tomboy” behavior, are clearly important for Kerrigan in communicating her message, but they make the film seem a bit too singularly focused on the trans element. It was encouraging that Tribeca had programmed “Cowboys,” and that it’s since been acquired by Samuel Goldwyn Films, reinforcing its ability to appeal to a broader public. The movie touches on some of the outsider elements that resonated with audiences in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” leaving room to appreciate their trip through unspoiled territory.
Kerrigan doesn’t invest much effort in creating suspense, in part because Joe hasn’t really been kidnapped. He and his dad are running away together, which shifts our concern to whether lead investigator Faith (Ann Dowd) will realize that in time to spare Troy’s life. He has been arrested before, we’re told early on, which presents another way in which appearances can be deceiving, since Troy’s a good man with a criminal record. There’s also the risk, à la “Boys Don’t Cry,” that strangers won’t be as understanding of the way Joe presents himself — although the movie’s much too gentle for a fatal gay-bashing. Kerrigan’s seeking an emotional response, but she’s also playing this as politically correct as possible.
Atmospheric and unhurried, “Cowboys” can be breathtakingly lovely, lingering as it does on pristine Northwestern landscapes that haven’t yet been colonized and carved up into strip malls and apartment complexes — a spoiling process not unlike the socializing of children, as generations of adults mold young people according to their own prejudices. It’s painful to watch Joe struggle against these pressures at times, but also encouraging to see Kerrigan challenging another gender stereotype: that of the angry, hotheaded father. Willing to be vulnerable, Zahn brings great warmth to one of his most surprising performances yet, as does the usually radiant, unexpectedly severe Bell in her corner — both comedic actors given a chance to defy expectations in a movie that fully embraces the spirit of reinvention.