In Palmer, the first feature on Apple TV+’s 2021 slate of original programming, Justin Timberlake played an ex-convict grappling with the responsibility of caring for the neighbour’s transgender, cross-dressing child. The film’s lesson in acceptance also proves to be fertile territory for Anna Kerrigan’s superior Cowboys, with Steve Zahn replacing Timberlake as a troubled father of a child undergoing a similar transition. More so than Palmer, Kerrigan’s second feature firmly enters the debate regarding how much control parents should have over their child’s gender, and how much choice a young child should be allowed.
Having been released from jail for a small-time battery, Troy Johnson (Zahn) performs an impromptu “rescue” of his daughter-son Joe (Sasha Knight), taking the child from his mother (Jillian Bell) and into the Montana mountains. Camping in woodland and scavenging supplies en route to Canada, the duo evades the state authorities – helmed by the level-headed Detective Faith Erickson (Ann Dowd).
Through flashbacks, it becomes clear that Johnson might be the only person who understands his transgender son, unlike the mother, who has been unable to accept Joe’s obsession with cowboy paraphernalia and dressing in male clothes. His resistance to wearing a dress, and preference for blue jeans, shirts and belt buckles, reminded me of the stubbornness of ten-year-old Laure in Céline Sciamma’s gender study Tomboy. This uncomfortableness in one’s own skin later emerges with Joe’s admission that “sometimes, I think aliens put me in this girl body as a joke.”
Inevitably, Joe’s resistance to his mother bleeds into a preference for his father, whose erratic behaviour and former alcoholism make him a problematic role model. Zahn’s excellent performance is reminiscent of his turn as Duane W. Martin in Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, but here the damage is less explicit, and the internal crises more complicated. Whilst motivated by fatherly duty, the journey to Canada is equally one of self-redemption and healing.
As the title suggests, the film is about more than one cowboy, and the growing pains of childhood and adulthood come together nicely over the course of the shared journey. Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace and Casey Affleck’s Light of My Life have both explored similar narratives of fathers and daughters in the wilderness. Cowboys is a film about trying to find the right path and the right body, despite getting lost on the way and facing a number of challenges.
Cowboys is on Curzon Home Cinema and digital download 7 May from Blue Finch Film Releasing
DIRECTOR: Anna Kerrigan
STARS: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd