Review: ‘Cowboys’ a powerful movie for the moment

Sasha Knight, left, and Steve Zahn in the movie "Cowboys."
(Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s western-tinged “Cowboys” feels like the right movie at the right time. This tough and tender tale, which pits big-hearted, bipolar Dad Troy (an excellent Steve Zahn), and his 11-year-old transgender son, Joe (newcomer Sasha Knight), against an insulated world of traditional values and expectations, should grip, move and surprise viewers in equal measure.

The film, set in present-day Montana, effectively uses flashbacks to outline the patchy relationship between the spirited, impulsive Troy; his more pragmatic wife, Sally (Jillian Bell); and their angelic child, who believes he was born in the wrong body and yearns to present as his true self.

Mom dismisses Joe as a tomboy, unwilling to see how the dresses she foists on the kid are suffocating and painfully misguided. But Troy, perhaps relating to Joe’s “outsider” status, just wants him to be happy and authentic and fosters the adoring child’s love of all things cowboy. This conflict in parenting — as well as a protective burst of violence that puts Troy behind bars — burdens Troy and Sally’s marriage and leads to a split.

Back in the present, Troy kidnaps Joe with a half-baked plan to escape with him to Canada. Meantime, a shrewd local cop (the always welcome Ann Dowd) works to track down the “fugitives” as father and son cross the rugged countryside by both horse and foot and encounter their share of dicey obstacles.


Despite the film’s compact length, it contains a wealth of tense action, complex emotion, deft observations, vital messaging and gorgeous vistas. A key moment in which Sally finally turns a corner on her acceptance of Joe is touching and powerful, as is the movie’s well-handled coda.


Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes

Playing: Available on VOD