Are they cowboys or are they outlaws? The police are looking for them, so that makes it hard not to say outlaws, yet that’s not what Anna Kerrigan’s new film is called. Cowboys is about Troy (Steve Zahn) and his son, Joe (Sasha Knight), and their decision to go on the run when Joe’s mom (Jillian Bell) keeps ignoring Joe’s attempts to make her understand he’s a boy, not a girl. While there are other factors that play into their decision as well, the film explores those further by jumping back and forth in time over the last year, when Joe was ten and eleven.
Cowboys is also Troy’s story, as he learns to manage his bipolar disorder, and while Kerrigan avoids some of the cliches (like Troy isn’t trying to get out of taking his medication) and doesn’t really fumble with either storyline, it does mean Cowboys has to split its time between Joe and Troy, instead of getting to focus more on Joe. Usually in real life you don’t get to tackle problems one at a time, so it’s not unrealistic, but whether it’s the right move for the movie is another matter, because it makes it easy to blame Troy’s bipolar diagnosis for his decisions. Instead of talking about why Troy took Joe out of his home, it becomes about whether or not Joe is safe in his care.
While Troy tries to play it cool, too, like they’re on a camping trip and not escaping to Canada, the urgency by which they have to keep moving means there isn’t much time for them to sit and talk, either, which again takes away from getting to hear from Joe about how he’s feeling.
Periodically the film checks in on Joe’s mom, and while she’s a character that could’ve easily been vilified or reduced to a smaller part, that’s not how you reach someone who believes she’s doing right by her child, and whose views about gender are so fixed and assured. Whether it’s forcing Joe to play with “feminine” toys or refusing to let him get out of wearing a dress, her views are so set in stone, yet she’s exactly the kind of person a film like Cowboys needs to reach.
As the lead detective investigating Joe’s kidnapping (as it’s being called by the police), not enough good things can be said about Ann Dowd, who never overplays her scenes (because it’s not meant to be a flashy part) yet is so convincing that it’s a crime that someone hasn’t written a detective show for her. Zahn, Knight, and Bell also put in great performances, as do Gary Farmer and John Reynolds in supporting roles as Troy’s friend and an unprofessional cop.
Cowboys is available on VOD starting February 12th from Samuel Goldwyn Films.