By Andrea Thompson
“Cowboys” opens with such a traditional twang you know it’s gonna be subversive. Or at least try to be. As those ol’ country sounds invite us to revel in the glory of the Montana landscape, we’re inclined to agree with Troy (Steve Zahn) when he remarks to his preteen son Joe (the remarkable Sasha Knight) that it’s “so pretty it’s almost too much.” But just because the beauty of the land is akin to a living painting doesn’t mean everything is rosy. As close as these two clearly are, there are early signs that they’re in trouble, and flashbacks only confirm it.
In the case of “Cowboys,” the big reveal isn’t exactly what Troy has done, but why. He may have kidnapped his child, but he did it in order to protect him from the bigotry of his mother Sally (Jillian Bell). Joe was born a girl, and his discomfort and disgust at his female body is readily apparent, even before he finally reveals his true feelings to his father. It takes Joe a bit to come around, but he’s staunchly support once he does, and Sally’s inability to do the same would be more repulsive if the roots of her disgust weren’t so clearly, firmly planted in self-hatred. For her, being a girl is something no one would choose in a place that denies them the freedoms men are able to casually embrace and enjoy. It’s especially ironic due to the fact that part of what makes Joe so sure he’s trans is that he fits right into the gender norms of their community, just not those he was born into.
Steve Zahn’s tragically layered performance, which is miles away from the comedic persona he’s built much of his career on, will most likely get much of the attention, but Jillian Bell, who already has an impressive resume herself, manages to bring an underrated sense of tragedy to a woman who could’ve easily come across as a hideously sexist caricature. Then again, maybe the fact that she’s less privileged than many on-screen white women typically are makes her far easier to sympathize with. Bell even holds her own opposite the always impressive Ann Dowd, even as she’s playing a woman who seems to be the last competent, compassionate cop in all of Montana. At least she gets to ride a white horse.
Writer-director Anna Kerrigan doesn’t just have a deep knowledge of the state she’s portraying (and a commitment to cast a child actor who was non-binary or trans), she has a deep affection for it, which may also be inhibiting her in some regards. While Kerrigan clearly has compassion for everyone here, especially as Troy’s mental illness begins to take its toll on him, the ending might just be a bit too utopian, especially in a time and place where bullies have every reason to feel enabled. That said, there are worse faults for a feature debut than hoping that people will turn to their better angels.