Socialist Worker

Cowboys—a Western that’s also a coming out journey

A trans boy and his father go on the run in search of freedom, in this welcome exploration of the tensions that can accompany coming out, says Laura Miles

Issue No. 2753

Issues of gender identity play out in Cowboys, a new take on the road trip genre

Issues of gender identity play out in Cowboys, a new take on the road trip genre


Cowboys is a timely and sympathetic trans coming out film, albeit in an unusual setting.

First shown at Outfest in 2020 this relatively short film was written and directed by Anna Kerrigan.

While it may lack some depth and dramatic intensity, it’s a welcome exploration of family tensions and traumas that can accompany trans children coming out.

The film is part father/son road trip and part modern cowboy fantasy, within which issues of gender and gender identity are sympathetically played out.

Joe (Josey), played by ten year old trans actor Sasha Knight, is an only child.

His mother Sally (the excellent Jillian Bell) is struggling to raise him while separated from his bipolar dad Troy (superbly played by Steve Zahn) in rural Montana.

Troy is just out of prison having assaulted Sally’s brother after Joe’s cousin used homophobic slurs against Joe.

Troy and Joe have a strong bond. Troy actually listens when Joe tells him that he’s really a boy and not a girl.

But Joe’s mother refuses to accept the truth and insists that he should wear dresses, have long hair and want doll toys.

The scenes with Sasha Knight in flowing extensions were the only visually clunky bits of the film I felt.

Sally’s transphobia makes her incapable of seeing Joe’s misery and struggle as anything more than a tomboy phase.

A scene when she refuses to let him have a cowboy book and toy gun is one that many trans people will easily relate to.

For Joe, Troy’s visits become focused on persuading him to take him away, despite his vulnerabilities and illness.

Drastic

The problem is that Troy doesn’t have legal custody. He makes a drastic and potentially fatal decision to make a run with Joe for the Canadian border.

It’s a path to possible freedom and a new life that’s been followed before by indigenous Americans fleeing the US army, to young Americans fleeing the draft in the 1960s.

It goes badly wrong from the start and things only get rapidly worse.

Troy is a loving father but a pretty inept fugitive. Before they get far his truck breaks down and he turns to a Native American friend Robert Spottedbird (Gary Farmer).

Robert tries to cover for Troy when the police start hunting them as armed kidnapper and victim.

Much of the background is told in flashback.

But the film’s main action focuses on Troy’s and Joe’s  increasingly desperate horseback flight through the Montana wilderness to the border and imagined sanctuary.

They are pursued by a SWAT team and a local chief of detectives, Faith, excellently played by Ann Dowd.

Do they make it? Do they both survive?

I shouldn’t finish with a spoiler—so why not watch Cowboys and find out for yourself?

Cowboys is on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download from Friday 7 May

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