Cowboys abandons nuance and meaningful exploration in favor of cheap sentimentalism and easy moralizing.
Queer cinema has always (unfairly) had to walk a very fine line. Play it too safe, and narratives can often end up feeling more like an overly didactic PSA, tightly topical but preachy and, at worst, even patronizing. Conversely, if a film refuses to meaningfully engage its queerness, it runs the risk of appearing to skate over complicated elements of identity, devolving into mere tokenism. Unfortunately, writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s second feature, Cowboys, doesn’t always manage to strike the right balance. Centered around a father, Troy (Steve Zahn), who spirits his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) away from his transphobic ex-wife Sally (Jillian Bell) and into the Montana wilderness, Cowboys divides its narrative between flashbacks of the family’s life both before and after Joe comes out as transgender and Troy and Joe’s present-tense break for the border. In the vein of films like Hunt for the Wilderpeople or Captain Fantastic (in which Zahn also appears), seriocomic escape-to-nature narratives that examine identity, Cowboys is rife with potential to explore transmasculine identity in the context of the natural world and to provide much-needed representation for trans men and boys on screen. Instead, Kerrigan’s film is mostly charmless, and it seems largely unconcerned with any meaningful exploration of its landscape or the cowboy antics/ethos implied in the title. For a film seemingly founded on a father and son’s shared journey (in all the forms that implies), Kerrigan devotes far more time to flashbacks concerning Sally’s relationship with her son. It’s an understandable choice — Troy is considerably easier to sympathize with than Sally, for obvious reasons, and so there are potentially fertile depths to plumb — but ultimately it only serves to decenter the story from Joe and Troy’s course in a way that isn’t just frustrating, but tedious. There have been enough stories of bigoted parents learning to tolerate their queer children to last a lifetime, and while Bell delivers an admittedly nuanced performance, everything wraps up far too neatly to communicate any authenticity or originality. That’s not to say that every queer story should be one of tragedy, and indeed it’s a relief here that Kerrigan doesn’t subject Joe to virulent transphobia as a cheap path of feels, but the director’s alternative still ends up opting for the saccharine at the expense of the sincere.
Kerrigan’s interrogation of both trans identity and the origins of transphobia feels surface-level at best, with reductive ideas about gender — namely, using a preference in toys and interests as a litmus test of gender — ultimately doing a disservice to both the narrative and the real people and struggles it reflects. Small moments shine through, with Kerrigan highlighting the impact of both gender dysphoria and the less-represented gender euphoria that Joe experiences when watching men and trying to emulate them. Still, these moments are brief, and when Joe explains his gender identity to his father, his analogies feel too sophisticated to be authentic to the character’s experiences, ultimately contributing to the sense that this film is less interested in interrogating the complex emotions that transgender children go through than it is in educating (and in many ways, comforting) a cisgender audience. Bell’s performance helps maintain some kind of equilibrium by refusing to provide a stock villain — complicating things in a way the rest of Cowboy’s patness doesn’t — but her eventual, hastened acceptance of Joe’s identity feels so unearned as to ultimately undo much of the preceding complexity. There’s no denying the noble intent, but Cowboys feels like it was conceived with the engagement and edification of cis audiences at the fore. The result, then, is a film that passes up the opportunity to contribute much to the exploration and rhetoric of transmasculine identity and gender transition in children, instead content to coddle viewers with light didacticism and heavy sentimentalism.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | February 2021.