While you could be forgiven, when viewing the events of the last few years, that humanity has gone backwards with their collective foot on the pedal, films like Cowboys reassure you with rich humanity and quietly-spoken but exuberant heart that we have not lost complete sight of what we could be if we would only open ourselves to what is possible.
This film beautifully explores what it is like for parents when they learn their child is transgender and that they are distressed by the disconnect between who they know they are inside and their outward physical reality, but it also takes the time to give the child a voice, in this case Joe (Sasha Knight) who makes it plain to his father Troy (Steve Zahn in a truly affecting performance) one night that he is not a girl and wants to live as the boy he knows he is.
Troy almost immediately takes his son at his word and tries to convince his estranged wife Sally (Jillian Bell proving she is dramatically talented as she is comedically inspired) they need to honour their child’s wishes.
But being far more traditional than her husband, and importantly in rural Montana, religiously observant, Sally cannot conceive of a world in which her daughter becomes her son with the extent of her communication with Joe being that we are what we are, God has a plan for us and you just have to go with that.
The multitude of issues with this fate-based faith aside, what distinguishes Cowboys as a truly thoughtful and empathetic film is that it does not demonise Sally for this approach; rather it shows her as a loving mother who simply wants the best for her child but who has yet to truly wrestle with what actually means now Joe has made it clear he is not who she thought he was.
Joe’s distress at his mother’s initial and in the shirt-term sustained lack of support, convinces him to escape one night with his dad and drive to the Canadian border for a whole new life.
Switching between past and present and beautifully and affectingly defining how great the love is for their son, and how important it is that they acknowledge his true gender, Cowboys, directed and written by Anna Kerrigan, is a nuanced piece of work that uses the escape of Joe with his dad – it’s treated, rightly by the authorities, represented by Detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd) as an abduction though that’s not how Joe sees it; well, not immediately anyway – to explore with sensitivity and great power what it means when everything you thought you know about your child and your life turns out not to be the truth of the matter, at all.
It’s understandably a lot to take in, and you understand why Sally struggles with to make the transition in her thinking to the fact that she does has a son and not a daughter; the film doesn’t excuse her position, rather it sympathetically allows her to move from outright resistance to acceptance through what would be everyone’s parental nightmare.
It’s not simply that Joe has gone off with Sally’s estranged husband that upsets her but that Troy has a mental illness for which he faithfully takes medication but which nevertheless impairs his judgement on occasion such at one point he lands in jail, and that one mistake out in the wilds of Montana could mean she never sees her son again.
It’s a simple enough premise in one sense but Kerrigan invests it with considerable import and meaning, delivering a moving family drama that is happy to take its immersive time getting to a fulfilling finish line ties things up well without once pretending life is ever cut and dry.
That is one of the most appealing parts of Cowboys.
It never once pretends that life is simple and straightforward or that people can pivot to a whole new way of thinking and feeling without some trauma on the way; nor, critically importantly, does it treat someone like Sally who is grappling with momentous change, Joe who is crying to be heard for who he really is or Troy who loves his son desperately but doesn’t always make the best decisions as cardboard cutout people, there to prosecute some easy narrative agenda.
Refreshingly, it treats what happens in their family, fractured though it is, as a complex and deeply felt turn of events that might have an obvious end point – acceptance of Joe as the boy he knows he is – but the journey of which is far more complicated on a whole host of levels.
It’s so easy when something is so humanistically right and good to just assume everyone will adopt it or arrive there without question, but as with any coming out process, and that is effectively what this is, there’s never a clear and simple road to where everyone needs to be.
Cowboys is essentially about that emotional journey for all concerned, and while Joe and Troy also take a literal one, which bonds them still closer while raising serious questions about whether Troy has done the right thing – much of the questioning on that front comes from 11-year-old Joe who challenges his dad with a child’s uncomplicated honesty – Sally takes a metaphorical one that changes her for the better in the midst of a trying ordeal that sometimes feels like it has no end.
Cowboys is a gently affecting timely film that doesn’t sensationalise its narrative nor underplay it; rather it embeds within an exquisitely well-wrought, nuanced family drama, a touching exploration of love and family, identity and truth, that can’t help but challenge you, in the very best of ways, that people are more complicated than society has ever really allowed for, and that therefore so is life, and that there is a great deal to be gained by simply opening our hearts and seeing where it takes us.