This debut feature shows a rare understanding of the complexities and challenges of modern family life, when a father and his transgender son escape to the mountains of Montana.
Troy (Steve Zahn) is on a camping trip with his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight), an 11-year-old with a passion for cowboy yarns and the great outdoors. As they travel through the majestic beauty of the northern Rockies, television news reports emerge claiming that Joe is missing.
As detective Faith (Ann Dowd) investigates, we see a bigger picture involving Joe’s conservative mother Sally (Jillian Bell) and her inability to let go of the little girl she loves. Anna Kerrigan creates a revisionist western that blends moving drama with classic frontier imagery in the great American wilderness.Blurb for film Cowboys
About the film
This film has a 15 Certificate in the UK and is very squarely aimed at left liberal parents and adults who would already support the idea that it is possible to be ‘born in the wrong body’. From the off, the film screams its worthiness, with panoramic views of Montana landscapes and twanging country guitar music.
The film revolves around lovable redneck Dad Troy, uptight Mom Sally and their 11 year old daughter Jo, who has started to identify as a boy and has about as much personality as a margarine sandwich. Dad gets the transgender thing, but Mom doesn’t.
Sally wakes one morning to find that her daughter is gone and the police launch a statewide investigation into kidnap. Meanwhile Troy and the kid are on the trail, trying to make their way to Canada. Right up front we learn that Dad needs to take pills, we never learn what for ,and he jams them into his mouth in a way which suggests the scriptwriter has never heard of the words ‘do not exceed the daily dose’. The message is clear though – medicines are necessary for many people.
Troy and Jo make their way to the house of one of Troy’s friends. Troy steals his friend’s favourite horse and when the police turn up asking whether the friend has seen Troy and the missing child, the friend lies. It isn’t really explained why the friend fails to disclose where a missing child is, nor why he isn’t bothered that his horse has been stolen, but we guess it’s something to do with Troy being a lovable rogue.
The story is also told in flashbacks; Jo mooning over her father and his friends at the bowling alley, Jo stealing her father’s attention when Mom thinks she’s going to get laid (uncomfortable for the viewer), Jo unhappy having to wear dresses and have photos taken, Jo changing into a shirt and jeans in the school’s ‘Lost and Found’ cupboard (subtle metaphor there).
The big moment
The moment Jo comes out as transgender is approximately 20 minutes into the film and after several heavy hints are dropped. She and Dad are just hanging out. Dad asks her if she wants to drive the truck, but she doesn’t, she wants to talk. Jo does little in the film but conform to being a sweet compliant girl really.
“I’m not a tomboy … I’m not a girl,” she tells Troy, and explains that it is like aliens have put her in the wrong body. Amazingly, despite being a total redneck, Troy understands the idea that his daughter is transgender in precisely 1-2 minutes screen time. Hats off to Zahn for making it seem so believable.
When the female police detective leading on the case finds a photo of Jo with short hair and dressed like a boy with her father, she visits Mom and asks her why she didn’t let the police know. The audience is invited to reflect that Mom has wasted police time through her own ignorance and stubbornness. We then move to a flashback in which Troy and Sally argue about Jo – Troy uses male pronouns to describe her.
Sally says, “Who would choose to be girl?”
“This isn’t about you,” Troy retorts.
That was the one and only critical argument firmly tossed into the bin.
Back in real time, Jo goes fishing in the dark and falls into the water, Troy jumps in to save her. Jo finally scrambles to safety herself (see, she is a real boy) but alas! during the drama Troy loses his medication, and from there things start to go wrong, as Troy needs his meds man.
We have a flashback of Troy attending what appears to be an AA meeting. He announces he is late because he was distracted by two dogs mating and wanted to watch until the end. I think this was just poor screenwriting rather than anything sinister. Yet again Zahn breezes through his lines – Are there any stupid lines he can’t make sound natural?
A critical moment comes when Jo’s cousin catches her dressed as a boy and calls her a dyke. She smacks him, they fight, Troy comes in and hits his nephew and his brother-in-law. It is the over-the-top type of response more in keeping with protecting a daughter, than a son, but I suspect the filmmakers don’t really know anyone in real life who punches people for real. Troy goes to prison, Sally won’t let Jo visit the prison.
Whilst trekking Troy and Jo become aware that the police are investigating her disappearance. In the most ridiculous moment of the film, Jo almost shoots a man dead. Jo is left alone while Troy goes to pee. Nervous she picks up a shot gun and fires it at a game keeper. The game keeper has a bullet in his thigh, but instead of calling the police, ambulance, etc, Troy simply put a tourniquet around his leg and he and the kid run off on foot. Jo is excited that people might think she killed someone. Zero reflection is made on the reality of a gunshot wound. We even see the guy sat up in his hospital bed, totally unaffected. Is there no one Troy can’t schmooze?
The police are closing in on them both and Jo then claims that Troy has kidnapped her, even though throughout the film it has been clear she has left of her own choice to be with dad. As they have their showdown, a swat team appear in the hills and close in. Troy gets shot twice in his abdomen area (more tomato sauce provided by the props department) and Troy tells Jo “you’re a good boy” as Jo cries about Dad being shot and everything.
Tying up loose ends
Troy goes back to prison and Sally lets Jo visit him there. Jo dresses how she wants. Mom is fully schooled now and uses male pronouns for her daughter.
Final scene is Jo on the school bus ready for the new term, dressed in ‘boys’ clothes’ i.e. checked shirt and jeans. So like a lot of American women basically. Everyone looks at her and whispers, but it just turns out they all want to know the amazing story of her trip with her dad.
What did I think?
I looked up the actors on IMDB after and these actors basically just work, so it was definitely a well cast production, especially Troy and Sally, who were nothing but believable saying ropey lines. The character of Jo, however, was not believable. Apart from her desire for ‘boys’ clothes’, there was really nothing tomboyish about her behaviour in the slightest. It confirms for me that the story of transgenderism is really about the adults.
The real problem with the film is that there is zero moral judgment of an errant alcoholic violent father taking his daughter away, without even informing the mother (and not to mention a child causing a life changing injury with a firearm). You just know the filmmakers don’t know men like this for real, but what is really unforgivable is that it presents this as a deserved punishment on the mother because she was not supporting the child’s gender identity. Which is a bit sinister.
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