Joe (Sasha Knight) is a trans boy who’s mother can’t accept her true gender identity. His unstable but supportive father (Steve Zahn) takes him into the wilderness on a perilous journey to Canada where he believes they will be able to live in peace. As they flee the authorities, both parents reflect on their experiences of their child’s emergent identity crisis.
The film is principally about parenthood and is most definitely told from the perspective of the parents of a transgender boy. Joe’s burgeoning experiences of gender realisation are interesting. Early on he watches men around him and we see his gaze. Emphasis is placed on the way the men dress and how they move and hold themselves. I can’t say if this is authentic to the early awakenings that trans people experience, but it’s an evocative visualisation.
The film is at it’s best when exploring the relationship between Joe and her father. Zahn plays the role with an often large energy that is at turns charming, frightening and tragic. The character experiences bipolar disorder which Zahn plays a little broadly, but never the less makes for an engaging protagonist. Sasha Knight’s portrayal of Joe is excellent. The character is anxious and complicated. She loves her father, hates her mother and has a strong intuition as to who she is.
The mother portrayal of the mother is a little more straightforward. She’s transphobic in her handling of her daughters identity, forcing her to conform to the expectations of her community for a young girl. We also see her act jealously of her son, resenting the attention her father pays to him. She becomes a slightly too flat foil for the father-son pair. There is some nuance in that the character is revealed to hate her lot in life too, and so is acting out her frustrations against a child who wants more. But she’s just a little too villainous, only really becoming sympathetic when dealing with even flatter antagonists like her brother. Of course understanding is coming, but early on her actions feel contrived.
However the father is not vindicated in his actions. Taking the boy into the wilderness is not the heroic act one would expect from an indie drama, nor is their journey a straightforward act of rescue. He’s endangering his life and has no long term plan. It’s refreshing to see this typical narrative challenged, and the dark turn near the films end feels appropriate and earned.
Cowboys is well meaning but ultimately doesn’t quite succeed as a movie about transphobia. You could easily swap out Joe’s transgender identity with any other signifier of individuality without dramatically changing the story. It’s more about parents listening to their children.