It isn’t by accident that “Cowboys” opens with a scene of overwhelming natural beauty in Glacier National Park in the upper reaches of Montana, with the skies awe-inspiring in their suggestion of a world without end and a light fog rolling over the deep blue river below, buffered by trees all reaching towards the heavens, an establishing shot that is as much about the land as its central character Joe (Sasha Knight), the 10-year-old transgendered child of Troy (Steve Zahn) and Sally (Jillian Bell) who can be seen in all his glory without any remnants of society there to judge. While writer/director Anna Kerrigan takes great pains to show how Joe isn’t free of influence, gravitating towards his ne’er-do-well father who embraces him wholeheartedly rather than his more responsible mother who hasn’t quite accepted that she has a son instead of a daughter, out here in the wild where he can be himself, he flourishes.
Still, this freedom is likely to be short-lived at least in a physical sense in Kerrigan’s clever and mildly subversive twist on the western, that most traditionally manly of genres, following Joe and Troy as they get the hell out of Dodge, in this case Kalispell, after the latter worries about violating his parole as well as seeing his kid increasingly dispirited in his mother’s custody. Troy’s instinct is to borrow a friend’s horse and head to Canada through the mountains, subsisting on cans of baked beans and elk jerky, and while “Cowboys” is quick to dispel romantic notions about the getaway when the flaws of Troy’s plan are exposed almost immediately in practice, they intriguingly remain that way in the mind of Joe, whose first steps towards coming out to his parents was preferring a “Cowboy Tom and the Apache Way” novella to a Barbie doll out shopping.
Although there’s some mild drama in whether or not the two will make it to the border, especially when they’re given chase by Flathead PD detective Faith Ericsson (Ann Dowd), Kerrigan finds far richer territory in charting how differently Troy and Sally have adjusted to their son’s transition, cannily intercutting the manhunt with flashbacks of the parents’ soul-searching. Zahn is at his rascally best as Troy, eminently appealing with an irrational level of confidence that provides his son with someone to look up to, though the adults in the room can be counted on to look at him askance, and Bell may impress even more as Sally, bringing nuance and empathy to a role that could easily lend itself to obvious villainy, generously showing how the character works through her emotions to the point where some of the strongest moments in the film are the quietest observations of her considering how she shows her love for Joe may ultimately be inhibiting his growth.
For her part, Kerrigan opens up “Cowboys” to such complexities with an intelligent, understated script and a relaxed directorial hand, embodying the strong, silent types that thrive in the West by not calling attention to themselves as they get the job done. The film may be set in modern times, but there’s an old fashioned sense of satisfaction that comes with a story this well-crafted and in touching on the past, “Cowboys” sees a way forward with great compassion.