Westerns have never been an interest of mine. Brokeback Mountain is really the only one I can think of that I’ve watched more than once; after all, who can resist a film about Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger falling in love? I had first heard of this film Cowboys at the Inside Out LGBTQ+ festival back in October so without further reading I assumed it was a modern day Brokeback, which I thought was dumb as shit. After reading up on this film, finding out its true synopsis and seeing Steve Zahn in the credits, I was sold.
For writer director Anna Kerrigan’s second feature we follow Troy, a troubled man who takes his transgender son away from his toxic ex-wife who refuses to let their son live life as his authentic self and goes on a trip into the wilderness. With his son Joe only being a child and Troy not having full custody, a manhunt ensues as the two boys bond and try to become the cowboys they’ve always dreamt of being.
It’s rare that queer films tread the western genre. A genre whose fan base has mostly been made up of straight men, rarely gets the gay treatment that doesn’t end up being a B movie or adult film of two cowboys; so this was absolutely refreshing. We’ve seen the handlings of a couple trying to navigate their trans child before but nothing like this. Instead we’re given a kind hearted father figure who albeit having many flaws, is the ideal role model for a young boy. A unique father son duo that more than just trans people will relate to. Joe’s trans identity isn’t his only attribute to the story. We get to watch a young boy witness his own father’s deteriorating mental health and try to navigate that throughout their journey. There’s so many layers to this story and seeing the way Joe navigates his own self discovery as well as both of their futures is quite riveting.
As small and subtle as this film may seem, the performances are anything but. Steve Zahn turns in a career best as Joe’s father, a well intentioned man who’s never doubted his son’s identity after his coming out, and who struggles with what seems as constant manic episodes due to a mental illness that is never clearly stated. On one hand it’s a very nuanced performance but on the other, it feels as free and off the rails as the character himself. Zahn truly became anything but himself on screen and embodied Troy to what seems like perfection. It was a performance that highlighted the beauty of acting. And of course, there’s newcomer Sasha Knight who delivered a fantastic child actor performance. Whenever they were both on screen together it was a joy to watch because there seemed to be so much heart involved.
It’s a quiet film with a loud message for everyone to hear. It’s a film that seems to embody what it means to have unconditional love for your child, as well as what it means to recognize your faults and change for the better. Cowboys is a great family movie that may be heavy at times, but always has its heart in the right place.