Cowboys, written and directed by Anna Kerrigan, is the latest in a long line of father and son stories, but one with a very different take that makes it an incredibly moving and important movie.
The film follows Troy (Steve Zahn), a man who’s separated from his wife and fresh out of jail, who one night takes his son Joe (Sasha Knight) from his home and sets out on a journey through the wilderness of Montana, heading for the Canadian border. When his wife, Sally (Jillian Bell) wakes the next morning to find Joe missing she calls the police for help. But this is when we get our first hint that there’s more going on here than a simple kidnapping, because even though Troy is heading for Canada with his son, Sally reports that her daughter is missing.
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Cowboys is not a story about kidnapping, it’s not a film about a couple going through separation and turning their child into a weapon to use to hurt each other; it’s a film about a young trans boy and the lengths his struggling father will go to to stand by him.
The film skips between the present and the past, slowly revealing the story of Joe and his parents as he and his father head closer to their goal in the present. Over the course of the film we discover that Joe was a very sad and distant child, a kid who hated having to wear dresses and do girl things. Joe idolised his father, and wanted to grow up to be like him, and to be a cowboy.
One of the most touching moments of the film is a scene where the terrified young Joe comes out to his father alone in their truck, him trying desperately to make his dad understand what he’s going through, and begging him not to tell a mother he knows won’t understand. We see that Troy’s acceptance and support of his son brings him and his wife into conflict, as she refuses to see her child as anything but the perfect little girl she always wanted.
These flashbacks not only provide the present with a lot more context, but felt like the heart of the film for me. The story of the father and son journeying to Canada was interesting, of course, but it was seeing how this family got to this point that really interested me; and the part of the story that I think is the most important.
This film had its premiere last year at Outfest, an LGBTQ+ film festival, and when people saw it it not only got great reviews, but it was being called timely by those watching it. And it really is. Trans rights and liberation is one of the most important and talked about things right now. Trans people have gone from being almost completely ignored to being the focus of political debates and media articles on almost a daily basis. Our rights and freedoms are constantly being ‘discussed’ and ‘debated’, and we’re being denigrated in ways that will be familiar to anyone who saw how gay people were treated thirty years ago.
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Films like Cowboys are important right now, because they not only humanise trans people, but show those who might never have taken the time to think about what it’s really like for us; that just finding acceptance from those who are supposed to love us unconditionally is a battle. The same day I watched this film I saw that a ten-year-old trans girl, Kai Shappley, who went in front of Texas lawmakers last week begging them not to take away her rights, has been receiving death threats. A child is getting death threats for wanting to live. A child who’s no different from the boy portrayed in this film. A kid who just wants to be accepted for who they are. That is not the kind of world we should be living in.
I’m sure that most people who watch Cowboys will be those who are seeking it out, people who know the issues it focuses on and are already trans allies; but it could also be seen by people who have never thought about these things before, or who have held negative views towards trans people. So if Cowboys is able to show even one person that trans people, especially trans children, deserve your acceptance and support it’ll go from an excellent film about family and love to something that could help make the world a better place. Films like this are helping to normalise trans people, our struggles, and our pain in the face of prejudice, and Cowboys is a damn fine example of it done brilliantly.
Cowboys is out on Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download on 7th May from Blue Finch Film Releasing.