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With: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, AJ Slaght
Written by: Anna Kerrigan
Directed by: Anna Kerrigan
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 83
Date: 02/12/2021

Cowboys (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Western Pair

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A lovely, big-hearted drama, Anna Kerrigan's Cowboys uses the familiar elements of cowboy stories to explore understanding and gender identity; while it doesn't take many risks, it's comfortable like an old pair of boots.

Troy (Steve Zahn) seems to be camping with his son, Joe (Sasha Knight), as they admire the scenery. In flashback we learn that Joe was born a girl. Joe explains his gender identity to Troy, who in turn tries to explain to Joe's mother, Sally (Jillian Bell). However Sally thinks it's a phase, brought on by Joe's idolization of her father, and his "filling her head with cowboy stories."

Troy and Sally's relationship is further tested by Troy's bipolar disorder, and by a stint in jail after fighting to defend Joe's honor. When Troy finds his visiting time cut, he and Joe plan an escape through the Montana wilderness and into Canada, first via Troy's beat-up pickup, then via horse. Can father and son find happiness before the authorities close in?

Cowboys uses the traditional image of the outdoorsy masculine man, with his boots and belt buckle and shaggy beard, as a kind of opposite here. Whatever stoic, unemotional picture they might conjure up is shattered when it's Troy — and not Sally — who comes to understand what Joe needs. (Sally is nonetheless presented not as a monster, but as someone who simply can't grasp the concept of gender fluidity.)

Cowboy imagery, such as clothes, toys, and books, are sources of comfort for Joe, a hope for freedom to be who he really is. But images of the great, wide outdoors are crossed with paranoia and Troy's increasingly manic behavior after he loses his medication.

The traditional chase-through-the-wilderness story isn't given much tension, but Cowboys seems to be veering more towards compassion than suspense; reaching the physical destination is less important than matters of the heart. Best of all, it's great to see character actor Zahn in a rare lead role, giving everything he has for a great performance. Bell also provides her character with much-needed layering, and Ann Dowd and Gary Farmer are terrific in supporting roles.

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