Written and directed by Anna Kerrigan, Cowboys tells the story of Troy (Steve Zahn), a mid-Western father who lives in an environment defined by masculinity. When his young daughter, Joe (Sasha Knight) reveals that she believes herself to be a boy, Troy’s initial apprehension quickly turns to acceptance of his son. However, his mother Sally (Jillian Bell) is not so understanding. Unable to accept this new reality, Sally attempts to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes in an effect to ‘help’ Joe. Frustrated by his wife’s response, Troy takes Joe into the Montana wilderness in an attempt to cross the border to freedom.
Known best for their comedic work, Zahn and Bell deliver incredible performances here as Joe’s conflicted and frustrated parents. Rather than focus primarily on Joe’s journey, this is a film about the fears and insecurities of the adults that surround him and, frankly, both stars are simply astonishing to watch onscreen. (Zahn, in particular offers some of the best work of his career here, imbuing Troy with a mixture of frustrated anger and genuine humility.)
Due to the strength of their performances, there’s a surprising level of nuance to Cowboys. While his temper can get him into trouble, Troy’s motives behind his blow-ups primarily stem out of a heart of protection for his young son. At the same time, Sally’s antagonistic mother is not without redemption either. Whereas many films of this type will portray their ‘villain’ as the inveterate monster, Sally’s anger stems more from her denial than a heart of bigotry.
While Bell and Zahn may be the focus of the film, Cowboys is about far more than their family. Pulling back the lens, Kerrigan’s work is also a call for grace and understanding from a culture that is still coming to grips with the modern sexual revolution and its nuances. Though Cowboys may be the story of one youth’s journey, it is also a reminder of the humility required to help all people discover who they were created to be.
Cowboys is currently streaming at the Inside Out Fest.