I have long thought that Steve Zahn is a criminally underrated character actor. I’ve loved practically everything I’ve seen him since Reality Bites. If you also believe that Steve Zahn is amazing, then you absolutely must see his performance as Troy in writer/director Anna Kerrigan’s Cowboys. In the film, Zahn plays opposite Jillian Bell as parents to Joe, a young transgender boy. It’s Zahn’s finest performance, beyond a shadow of a doubt, but then again, all the leads are excellent.
Cowboys takes place in the mountains of Montana. Jillian Bell plays Sally, a waitress at the local bowling alley who is married to Troy. The two are in a presumably happy marriage, and both have a great relationship with their daughter, Josie (Sasha Knight). That is until Josie comes out to her father as trans. Troy accepts Joe for who he is, but Sally is unable to do the same. This causes trouble in Sally and Troy’s relationship and contributes to a decline in Troy’s mental health.
He starts a battle with that and the legal system which separates him from Sally and Joe. He finally gets fed up with the way that Sally is treating Joe and kidnaps him early in the morning while Sally is asleep. The father and son duo set out to Canada on horseback. Naturally, Sally loses her mind when she realizes Joe is missing. In come the police, specifically Detective Faith (Ann Dowd), to help find Joe.
“…Josie comes out to her father as trans. Troy accepts Joe for who he is, but Sally is unable to do the same.”
As I mentioned before, the performances in this movie are outstanding, particularly Zahn’s. It’s worth mentioning again that Zahn’s and Knight’s performances especially will tug at your heartstrings. The script by Kerrigan is in equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. I found myself weeping more than once during Cowboys if that tells you anything. The cinematography by John Wakayama Carey shows us the gorgeous immensity of Montana while also capturing the personal touches of a family drama.
I think the most important thing about Cowboys is the normalization of trans people in more traditionally conservative places, such as the state it is set in. Showing the acceptance of Joe by his dad is extremely important for representation. It would do those who don’t understand or sympathize with the plight of trans people well to see this film. Something about seeing a child suffer through the confusion and horrors of growing up in a less than supportive environment is extremely relatable.
I can’t recommend Cowboys enough and wouldn’t be surprised if Zahn doesn’t pick up more awards for this performance on the way. He already won Best Actor at the 2020 Tribeca film festival. So take the time to check it out when it comes your way.
Cowboys screened at the 2020 NEWFEST.
"…it would do those who don't understand or sympathize with the plight of trans people well to see this film."