Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Rather than following somebody raised a girl who is learning to live as a boy, it's about a boy who, all too quickly, has to start learning to be a man."

According to the FBI, of the approximately 800,000 children who go missing in the US each year, a quarter are taken by family members. Disputes over custody following the divorce or separation of the parents is the most common reason for these abductions. Almost all the children eventually return home safely, but naturally this doesn't stop their families being frantic with worry in the meantime. Most parents will struggle to imagine a more terrifying situation.

At first glance, the disappearance of Sally's child appears to be a classic case of this type. She (Jillian Bell) has recently separated from husband Troy (Steve Zahn), who has metal health problems and has done time for assault. But detective Faith (Ann Dowd, channelling Fargo's Marge Gunderson) soon comes to suspect that there's something she hasn't been told. A picture of the missing kid retrieved from Troy's abandoned truck reveals not the little girl whom Sally described but what looks like a short-haired boy in plaid shirt and jeans. Why wasn't she told about this? Just what is going on between the parents, and how can she intervene to try and keep all involved safe?

Copy picture

No attempt is made to preserve a sense of mystery around the child's gender. Joe is a trans boy (played by young trans actor Sasha Knight), and writer/director Anna Kerrigan addresses this in a matter of fact way because, beyond the effect it has on other characters, it isn't really all that important. This isn't another film that expects its audience to be fascinated by trans people simply because they're there. Instead, it's a story about two adults trying to raise a child and navigate a relationship despite the fact that they both still have some growing up of their own to do. And rather than following somebody raised a girl who is learning to live as a boy, it's about a boy who, all too quickly, has to start learning to be a man.

Troy's plan, such as it is, is to take Joe through the Montana wilderness to Canada where "they'll understand you...because they're all super nice." Along the way, he loses his medication and starts to behave increasingly erratically, less and less able to cope with the emotional strain of the situation. Joe, who has always been a fan of cowboys and horses and the pulp adventure idea of life as an outlaw, quickly realises that he'll need to start making the decisions if they're going to be okay, but he too is out of his depth, aware that for the first time in his life he has no-one to look after him..

There's a great deal here about gender roles more broadly and way that a child's developing sense of role can impact how parents feel about themselves. Joe is an only child and Sally has obviously invested a great deal in trying to raise somebody who is like herself, taking Joe's rejection of the toys and clothes she loves personally. She's still a loving parent, however, and Kerrigan is careful to show us that her intentions are good, no matter their results. Similarly, she reveals through flashbacks what Troy has meant to Joe as a masculine role model, and how problematic that has sometimes been (for all that, as Troy points out, the kid could have done worse). With Troy the only person willing to respect his masculinity, it's difficult for Joe to model himself on anyone else, difficult for him to find a healthy way of growing up and managing the specific pressures that life as a man brings.

The evident love that remains between Sally and Troy even after their separation complicates the story further, enabling Kerrigan to look in depth at a complex relationship dynamic. Family arguments and small, intimate moments are captured in close up, a world away from the vast, sweeping landscape of the Northern Rocky Mountains (which is, Troy insists, nothing compared with what Canada has to offer). The result is a film that brings a very personal drama crashing headlong into thriller territory, a space in which none of these characters belong. Only Faith seems at home with both, so viewers will find themselves rooting for her to find the fugitives even though, with guns involved and tempers running high, there's no knowing what might happen when she does.

A boy's own adventure tale brought firmly down to earth, Cowboys, which took two well deserved awards at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, is a stunning feature d├Ębut with widespread appeal.

Reviewed on: 30 Apr 2020
Share this with others on...
Troy and his young transgender son Joe are on the run from his conservative mother in the Montana wilderness, with a detective in hot pursuit.
Amazon link

Director: Anna Kerrigan

Writer: Anna Kerrigan

Starring: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Ann Dowd, Chris Coy, Bob Stephenson, Gary Farmer, Sasha Knight, Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Ann Dowd, Chris Coy, Bob Stephenson, Gary Farmer, Sasha Knight

Year: 2020

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: US

Search database:

Related Articles:

Back on the trail
Montana story

If you like this, try:

Captain Fantastic