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[In the wake of the Tribeca festival’s postponement this year, The Hollywood Reporter is reviewing select fest entries that elected to premiere digitally for critics.]
What a pleasure to see the underrated Steve Zahn in a leading role that fully capitalizes on the contradictory currents coursing through his screen persona — of mellowness and wired energy, grounded warmth and off-kilter unpredictability. He’s the big open heart of writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s tender drama Cowboys, about an unstable charmer and devoted father who whisks his preteen transgender son off on an impulsive outlaw flight through the Montana wilderness toward the Canadian border in an intimate Western that pays loving, low-key homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Premiered in the U.S. Narrative Competition of this year’s online edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, Cowboys won best actor honors for Zahn and best screenplay for Kerrigan. That latter prize notwithstanding, it’s in the writing that this sweet slice of modern-day Americana set against the majestic big-sky backdrop of Glacier Park and Flathead National Forest reveals its weaknesses.
The characters are drawn with nuance and compassion and the bond between Zahn’s Troy and his 11-year-old son Joe (Sasha Knight) is quite poignant. But the action becomes more predictable and less convincing as the authorities close in on these embattled buddies on the run, which is precisely when it should be gaining momentum. And Kerrigan’s examination of the sensitive issue of childhood gender expression — unlike either the playful fantasy of Alain Berliner’s Ma Vie en Rose or the unblinking naturalism of Céline Sciamma’s exquisite Tomboy — at times resorts to dialogue that might have been lifted from an LGBTQ best practices handbook.
“I’m not a tomboy. A tomboy’s just another type of girl, but I’m not a girl,” says Joe in the pivotal scene where he explains to his father why he can’t keep wearing dresses. “Sometimes I think aliens put me in this girl body as a joke. I’m in the wrong body, OK? I’m a boy.”
On the other hand, Kerrigan’s approach benefits enormously from her choice to cast a child who identifies as trans or non-binary in the key role of Joe.
Some of the most resonant interludes in the film are those without dialogue, such as Joe, still in the mortifying girly-girl uniform of a pink flouncy top and cascading blond tresses, intently studying the loose body language, masculine camaraderie and sartorial style of his dad’s buddies at a bowling alley. The shy smile that spreads across Joe’s face as he takes in details like an outsize silver belt buckle is lovely. Likewise, a scene that follows, when he sneaks off into a Lost and Found closet and tries on classic all-denim cowboy gear, threading his thumbs through his belt loops with satisfaction.
These beautifully observed moments of illumination will strike chords with every queer kid who ever felt like an outsider desperate to find the peace of belonging in their own skin.
Kerrigan takes a smart tack by opening the film with Troy and Joe already out in the wild together, seen against a breathtaking mountain landscape while the twangy guitars and whistles and atmospheric percussion of Gene Back’s score specifically evoke the modern Western. When Troy’s truck breaks down, he “borrows” a white stallion from his Native American friend Robert (Gary Farmer), and father and son continue the journey through rugged country on horseback, further cementing the cinematic frame of reference.
When Joe’s mother Sally (Jillian Bell) wakes up and discovers her child is gone, she reports the incident to the police. But it speaks to the depth of her denial that she neglects to mention Joe hacking off his hair and identifying as a boy, a detail that sympathetic Detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) only discovers when she finds a photo stuck in the dashboard of Troy’s abandoned truck.
With an amber alert about the missing child making national news and a search operation underway, the action cuts between the outlaw pair and flashbacks to both before and after Troy and Sally’s split.
We witness the breakdown of their marriage, due in part to manic behavior that Troy’s medication can’t entirely control, and also see the marked difference in their response to Joe’s agonized coming out. While Troy at first makes a clumsy joke of it, he thereafter offers complete acceptance to his trans son. But Sally fights against the evidence, trying to straitjacket Joe into rigid social norms while blaming Troy for “filling her head with cowboy stories.” Joe’s mother’s belligerent use of female pronouns becomes an act of angry defense.
Bell, so good in Brittany Runs a Marathon, seems miscast at first as the uptight Sally, and Kerrigan’s script does her few favors. “God’s got the game plan,” Sally lamely reassures her child, as if trying also to persuade herself. But the director refuses to brand the character as terminally small-minded, instead showing the frazzled state of a decent woman simply trying to do what she thinks is best, and Bell’s melancholy performance grows steadily more touching.
Dowd has moments of aching sensitivity beneath her character’s brisk professional demeanor, but the film is strongest when it remains tightly focused on Troy and Joe.
A scene in a clothing store begins with a direct nod to Kerrigan’s inspiration, as Troy hands Joe a cowboy shirt to try on, saying, “This one screams Paul Newman.” But that sweet exchange turns ugly when Sally’s nephew (A.J. Slaght) taunts Joe about his appearance, prompting Troy to shift aggressively into protective mode and injure his brother-in-law (Chris Coy) in the process. That volatility becomes a factor also later in the father and son’s flight, once increasingly edgy Troy has lost his meds and the romance of escape has begun to wear off for Joe as he questions his dad’s capacity to keep him safe.
The plotting ultimately is a bit thin, even simplistic in places, and some of the more dramatic incidents out in the woodlands are poorly handled. But the central idea — of an “abduction” hastily improvised out of a child’s desperate plea to be free and a father’s unquestioning love — is a sturdy one that ameliorates the film’s flaws. And the soulful connection of two misunderstood outsiders is played with moving feeling by Zahn and Knight.
Production company: Limelight
Cast: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, John Beasley, A.J. Slaght
Director-screenwriter: Anna Kerrigan
Producers: Gigi Graff, Anna Kerrigan, Dylan Sellers, Chris Parker
Executive producers: Alex Dong, Anil Baral
Director of photography: J.P. Wakayama Carey
Production designer: Lance Mitchell
Costume designer: Emily Moran
Music: Gene Back
Editor: Jarrah Gurrie
Casting: Eyde Belasco
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)
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