Whatever its imperfections, many viewers will be ready to applaud this drama.



This film by Anna Kerrigan wins one's sympathy because its heart is so clearly in the right place. The title might suggest a movie typical of an earlier era but this piece, written as well as directed by Kerrigan, is quite unlike the standard western that its name might lead you to expect. Indeed, although it is set in Montana and features a father and child riding out on horseback in the hope of reaching Canada, at heart it hardly counts as a western at all. The setting, very effectively photographed by John Wakayama Carey, may feature that kind of terrain but at the centre of the film is a story about parents responding to the fact that their daughter, Josie 'Joe' Johnson (Sasha Knight), is someone who at the age of ten is convinced that he is a boy. If the subject is a pertinent one in today's world, so too is the fact that many will welcome the casting of Sasha Knight who does indeed identify as being trans.


The format in which the tale is told is unusual in that Cowboys begins at a mid-point in the story and then blends later events with substantial interspersed flashbacks revealing the events that led up to that point. At the outset we can tell that Troy Johnson (Steve Zahn) is a loving father even though he appears to be abducting 'Joe' as Josie prefers to be called. He takes her from the home of her mother, Sally (Jillian Bell), from whom he is now separated. Before long the police who include Detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) are in pursuit of Troy and, while we are sure that Troy is no villain, we are concerned for Joe's safety because it is clear that Troy is on medication and might be a danger to the child due to health issues.


In these opening scenes the fact that Joe is trans is no more than hinted at obliquely, but I do not hesitate to mention it because this becomes central to the story (Troy is understanding of the situation whereas the staunchly religious Sally is determined to counter any suggestion that Joe is anything other than a girl and it is their conflict over this that has driven the couple apart). As is often the case with films that constantly move back and forth in time, presenting the narrative in this way makes for a less than smooth piece of storytelling. But at least it is not difficult to follow and the film is reliably acted especially by Zahn, who has top billing for once, and by the ever welcome Ann Dowd.


Having a female as the central detective puts one in mind of Fargo (1995) and the idea of father and child journeying together echoes Leave No Trace (2018). These were better films and the comparisons evoked underline the fact that the plot development in Cowboys is decidedly episodic, at times contrived and unsubtle and not always convincing in its dialogue. There are enough weaknesses for one to recognise that the film could have been better, but it's still good enough to recommend to those who can see the value of using an appealing popular drama to encourage audiences to consider the situation of trans people. Even so, the film to seek out if you want a masterpiece on the subject of a trans child is the 2020 documentary Little Girl which was undervalued when it was released here last year.




Cast: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, AJ Slight, John Beasley, Seth Breding, Steve Dodd, Emily Moran, Michaela Dixon.


Dir Anna Kerrigan, Pro Anna Kerrigan, Gigi Graff, Chris Parker and Dylan Sellers, Screenplay Anna Kerrigan, Ph John Wakayama Carey, Pro Des Lance Mitchell, Ed Jarrah Gurrie, Music Gene Back, Costumes Emily Moran.


Limelight-Blue Finch Film Releasing.
86 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 7 May 2021. Available on Curzon Home Cinema. Cert. 15.