BFI Flare 2021 Film Review – Cowboys (2020)

Cowboys arrives at BFI Flare as something of an indie favourite on the festival circuit. Awards at last year’s Tribeca and a showing at the recent Glasgow Film Festival have all helped spread the word about Anna Kerrigan’s sophomore feature, a family drama with a modern day western setting and heartfelt things to say about a number of contemporary issues. Perhaps too many.

Troy (Steve Zahn) is just out of jail and his relationship with wife Sally (Jillian Bell) is strained. Stuck between them is Joe (Sasha Knight) who, at the tender age of ten, has realised he’s a boy born in a girl’s body and is starting to dress and behave in ways that feel more comfortable. Sally’s opposition to his behaviour fractures the family even further, with Troy deciding to take what seems like the easy way out – whisking Joe away into the wilds of Montana in a bid to escape the pressures on both of them. But with the police called in and their abduction story now the number one news story on TV, it’s only a matter of time before reality catches up with them.

A film with compassion running through its veins, it’s also one that directs its caring in unexpected ways. Joe’s maturity in knowing the truth of his gender and showing that he’s more of an adult than his parents is the obvious target, but his mother is a different matter. Instead of being transphobic pure and simple, she has reservations and difficulties in adjusting to such a huge change, much of which comes from an innate desire to protect her child. But for Joe it all adds up to his mother not accepting him as he is, so his father seems a better option – even if he’s not. True, he’s supportive of his son, but he has his own problems that make him unreliable and unpredictable. As the regular flashbacks to earlier times show, it’s part of the reason for the tension between the parents, even though their mutual attraction and affection hasn’t snuffed out completely.

Those flashbacks prove to be an awkward way of telling the story, gradually grating as the film progresses, and while its good intentions are emblazoned on its sleeve, some of its themes remain underdeveloped. Troy, for instance, is charming but not always a steady pair of hands, needing daily medication to keep the underlying reason under control. But even when we see the result of losing his tablets, we’re still very much in the dark and it limits our understanding. Yet Zahn, often such an underrated actor, keeps a firm hold our sympathies and his double act with the impressive Sasha Knight is, in turn, tender and heart breaking. Heading up the police pursuit is Detective Faith Erikson (Ann Dowd), the kind of cop who conceals her razor sharp mind behind a gentle façade. It’s all too easy to underestimate her, and you do so at your peril. Yet again, Dowd (outstanding in Mass at this year’s Sundance) proves her class in a performance grounded in reality, one that implies a backstory all of its own that we long to know more about. But we don’t see enough of her.

Limitations aside – the ending, especially, is too Hollywood for a film with such indie credentials – Cowboys is film with genuine heart, especially when it comes to the tangle of feelings that go with being a young transgender. But, despite all those warm feelings, there’s no mistaking the feeling that it could have been so much more, and even better.

★★★1/2


Drama | Cert: tbc | BFI Flare, 17 – 28 March 2021 | Dir. Anna Kerrigan | Steve Zahn, Sasha Knight, Jillian Bell, Ann Dowd.