BFI London Flare Film Festival Review – Cowboys (2020)

Screened (digitally) as part of the BFI London Flare LGBTQ+ Film Festival 2021, Cowboys gives a voice to children struggling with gender identity. Written and directed by Anna Kerrigan, Cowboys follows young Joe’s (Sasha Knight) transition into becoming a boy, despite his mother’s resistance. Although well-intentioned, Joe’s narrow-minded mother and unstable father make his transition far from smooth. Only Joe’s father, Troy (Steve Zahn) is prepared to accept him. But being imprisoned and divorced, it’s hard to offer much support.

Once out of prison, Troy attempts to “kidnap” his son and ride horseback over the Canadian border. In spite of some heart-warming father-son bonding, the plan ultimately proves unrealistic and irresponsible, especially given Troy’s emotional imbalance. Quaintly dramatic and exuding a delicate charm, Cowboys is an emotionally charged account of love in the face of difficulty. Disrupting the family norm, Cowboys is timely for it’s focus on trans children—an important topic in American politics today.

The familiar cowboy trope is used eloquently here as a way of exploring gender identity—much in the way that Brokeback Mountain did back in 2005 (dir. Ang Lee). The gun-slinging, pipe-smoking, whiskey-drinking male stereotype is challenged, as Joe wishes to discard his dresses in exchange for cowboy boots and a toy gun. His mother, played by Jillian Bell, rejects this notion–but the father Joe idolizes continues to support him against all obstacles. For all his flaws, Troy is an extremely likable character, bursting with energy, love and humour. It’s this connection between Joe and Troy that carries the film, making up for it’s slight lack of investment in other areas.

Kerrigan’s story and message is made clear in Cowboys within a relatively small time frame (1 hour, 23 minutes). Humane and devoid of clichés, Cowboys is a dignified look into one of the most important issues facing modern America. It’s beautifully told through Joe’s heartfelt story, studded with sweeping landscapes of the Montana mountains.