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Film Review: Steve Zahn Gets Dramatic in ‘Cowboys’

The new film by Anna Kerrigan tackles the subject of gender identity in a unique way.

Cowboys, the new film by writer-director Anna Kerrigan often wears its heart on its sleeve, but it’s nevertheless a deeply-felt story.

Steve Zahn, an actor familiar to most for his roles in goofy comedies, gets a chance to exercise his dramatic chops here, and he’s great. He plays Troy, a common man who is so driven to keep his family happy that it practically makes him crazy. He’s married to Sally, played by Jillian Bell, another actor usually known for her comedic performances. Again, she delivers the dramatic goods.

Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell get dramatic in Cowboys.

They have a child, born with a female identity but given the non-binary name of Joe (newcomer Sasha Knight). Joe has long locks and is constantly coerced into wearing flouncy dresses by Sally (which is done reluctantly).

But Joe is clearly unhappy, and he finally confesses to Troy that he was born with the wrong gender identity. Troy understands.

When he takes up his son’s side, Sally thinks he corrupting Joe and blames him for turning the child against her. Sally wants Joe to be a typical girl, while Troy wants to help him be who he really needs to be. This fragments the family and a divorce is inevitable. Impulsive acts of violence also land Troy in jail.

It all becomes too much, and Troy comes to rescue Joe at the dead of night to escape to Canada. They are pursued by a local cop (Ann Dowd) as they ride on horseback through the hills. But bipolar Troy begins to lose it, and it’s up to Joe to take charge and keep them on their path.

Although the story hits a couple of bumps along the way, it mostly stays on track, driven by the compelling performances of Zahn, Bell and especially the precocious Knight.

There’s a scene in a grocery store near the end of the film where Sally impulsively fills her cart up with Western books and other typically male-identified gear that Joe always loved. It signifies her understanding and especially her heartache for her missing son.

The film, set in present-day Montana, is a reminder that these stories don’t have to be in specific places to happen. It happens everywhere. They’re your sons. They’re your daughters.

Kerrigan crafts many lovely scenes that ring with truth and she works with cinematographer John Wakayama Carey to capture splendid Montana vistas. Combined with a rich score by Gene Back, Cowboys nudges toward Brokeback Mountain territory, which is not inappropriate, as both films share themes of longing.

Cowboys is now available on VOD.

Kurt Gardner

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