Tribeca Review: Cowboys
Though it has bits and pieces of a revisionist western, Cowboys is also effective as an allegorical one. The feature-length debut from writer-director Anna Kerrigan follows the journey - both physical and otherwise - of a mother, father, and their transgender son. It seamlessly stitches together two timelines, an exercise in shifting perspectives that dramatically undermines our notions of right and wrong, good and evil, just as we begin to develop them. Cowboys resists the human urge to villainize, instead offering sympathy for two flawed parents as they navigate their responsibilities to a child they love, but do not fully understand. It’s a sparse, beautiful film, and while the movie lacks cohesiveness between its various threads, it steps so lightly that forgiveness comes easy. The story of Cowboys is simple: Troy (Steve Zahn) and Sally (Jillian Bell) begin fighting when their child tells them he is transgender. Troy accepts him as a him; Sally does not (she continues to use female pronouns, for one) - and after being released from a brief prison stint following an altercation with Sally’s brother, Troy takes Joe (trans actor Sasha Knight) from Sally’s home and absconds to the Montana wilderness. Some of the best moments in Cowboys come when Kerrigan uses her camera to show Joe’s slow realization of his identity, a transition that is much more easily explained with words than visuals, but more powerfully rendered with the latter. The film combines music with movement as Joe watches her father and his buddies bowl, joke, and drink beer while their wives sit and talk - Joe clearly identifies with the men, much more interested in wearing belt buckles and flannel than her Sunday-best dress. If anything, Cowboys could have devoted more time to exploring this discovery, especially the difficulty of Joe's decision when and how to tell his parents, and the pain of what comes next. But instead of sticking with Joe, Cowboys splits its perspective three ways. Taking the time to slowly unravel the history of Joe’s family, Kerrigan has little interest in black and white morals, instead posing and exploring a very simple question throughout: what are the responsibilities of adults to their children? Unconditional support? Protection at all costs? Deferring to a child’s choices, or overruling when the parent knows best? These seem like easy questions in one moment, only to see Kerrigan pull the rug out from under both characters and audience in the next. Zahn offers a free-wheeling yet controlled performance as the loving but manic father - the film dabbles dangerously close to a caricature of bipolar disorder, but Zahn’s humanity brings nuance to a character that might have gone awry in another’s hands. Bell brilliantly holds everything back as Joe’s mother, narrow-minded but nonetheless full of love for her son. And more than any other aspect of the film, Knight knits its fragments together, an impossible mix of confusion and complete certainty. The vistas on the road from Montana to the Canadian border are captured with a matter-of-factness that never threatens to overtake the story - an appreciated departure from traditional westerns. A harrowing chase through raging waters demonstrates Kerrigan and DP John Wakayama Carey’s skill with the camera. And the score is unobtrusive but evocative: the type that if you paused before the final scene you’d struggle to recall it from memory, but when it returns in the closing moments, it brings a flood of memories and emotions along with it.
Cowboys might not succeed as a complete study of any one of its characters, but it’s a riveting snapshot of the small family unit.