Movie Review: “Cowboys” (2021)

One of the terrible truths about being human and the world being imperfect is that just because you’re doing the best you can, just because you think you’re doing the right thing, just because you’re trying your hardest, it doesn’t mean that everything is going to work out. Sure, it’s great when it does, but the sad fact of the matter is that it simply doesn’t always happen that way. With “Cowboys,” writer-director Anna Kerrigan gives us the story of one family facing multiple issues and, until the credits roll, it is anybody’s guess as to whether the ending will be happy or sad.

In the lead roles here are Steve Zahn as Troy, a bipolar man and Sally, played by Jillian Bell, the wife from whom he’s separated. As we come to learn during the movie, the two butted heads about the best way to approach their trans son, Joe, played by Sasha Knight. Troy, despite all his other faults, is accepting of Joe, while Sally is not. This difference in approach has not only potentially ended the marriage, but has also led Joe to runaway with Troy. As Sally has custody, whether or not Troy’s heart was in the right place, it is a kidnapping.

Bell and Zahn imbue these two flawed individuals with such humanity, such love, that we endlessly root for them to turn things around even when they’re quite clearly in the wrong. We want them to stop the seemingly inexorable downhill travel of their lives. Certainly, we see they have such power, we just want them to exercise it.

Both parents do Joe a terrible disservice here in “Cowboys.” Importantly, it’s not because they don’t care about Joe or love Joe or want the best for Joe. In fact, it’s precisely because of their love that they make these errors (that is something that it’s easier for us, outside the tale, to deal with than it is for their son who has to live through their mistakes). In well crafted fashion, Kerrigan makes sure that we understand that both parents have the potential to come around to the right side, and we hope that they do so before it is too late.

The tale jumps backwards in time repeatedly, showing how the family got to this point and breaking our hearts over and over again as Sally and Troy make one mistake after the next, constantly defying that desire we have to watch them succeed as parents. This is heightened by Knight’s work as Joe. We repeatedly see the questioning and the upset and the fear and the hope Joe has within, and feel a need for Joe’s parents to embrace him and accept him and beat the hell out of anyone who feels differently.

All of this plays out as we watch Troy and Joe on the run to Canada from their home in Montana. We are treated to beautiful woods and mountains and streams as Troy does his best to keep an even keel despite having little to no plan and knowing the police are most definitely looking for the pair.

Those police are manifested largely in the form of Ann Dowd’s detective, Faith Erickson, who is in charge of the case and whose life is made all the more difficult by the fact that Sally initially presents Joe as a girl, not a boy. Through her character, Dowd offers a largely stabilizing adult presence to the film. Erickson, perhaps because she is not emotionally caught up in the lives of these three folks (not that she doesn’t care once she meets them), not only is able to piece the whole story together, but can also see the happiest possible outcome and strive to make it come true.

One walks away from “Cowboys” wanting nothing so much as for the world to be a kinder, gentler, more loving, place. We arrive at that point because Zahn and Bell—with no small amount of effort from Anna Kerrigan—make these horribly flawed, sometimes terribly wrong, people into individuals we know can do better and whom we want to see do better.

Where does it all end? Do they fix it all in time? There is just no way I’m going to spoil that. The movie is out next week, and is most definitely a powerful film.

photo credit: Samuel Goldwyn Films

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