You know the old saying about where a road “paved with good intentions” can lead.

And it’s true. I’ve watched passionate, purposeful, principled artists pour their lives and life savings into projects that, while meaningful for the artists, amounted to unwatchable results.

But it’s not a binary proposition, of course: Good intentions can lead to the achievements of masterworks, too — and everything in between, including destinations like ‘Mediocrity’ and ‘Fairly Decent.’

Director Anna Kerrigan’s inspiring generosity of spirit is evident throughout her second feature film: Cowboys. And — good news for moviegoers — the result is a large-hearted movie, admirable for its ambitions and its embrace of its environmental contexts as more than just backdrops.

This is the first film I’ve seen about a trans child, one named Joe (Sasha Knight) whose mother Sally (Jillian Bell) strives with increasing desperation to force her child into the cultural norms for girls when it is very clear that there’s something going on here more complicated than childish stubbornness or delusion. Joe isn’t interested in Barbie dolls or jewelry or anything else that typical girls are interested in. Fair enough — a lot of girls aren’t. But the fact is that Joe’s objections go far beyond strong feelings about toys and accessories. Evident body parts are, according to Joe’s fierce convictions, not nearly enough to resolve questions about gender identity. This whole “girl” thing is a mix-up. And her father, Troy (Steve Zahn) is willing to listen, to pay attention, and to believe.

Troy (Steve Zahn) strives to help his child Joe (Sasha Knight) escape a world that insists on binary categorization when it comes to gender. That means heading off into a “wild west” of empathy, faithfulness, and love.  [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
But here’s the problem: The only one willing to show Joe love rather than trying to muscle a child into a simplistic mold — an act that all too often pushes a child down a path toward suicide — is an ex-con, one who is trying to stay on his carefully calibrated medication menu, trying to win back the woman he loves, and trying to do what is best for his child. That proves to be a lot to juggle. And once Troy impulsively takes Joe away from his mother and heads off on horseback into the Montana wilderness, with police and a determined police detective (Anne Dowd) on their trail, we know that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better… if they get better at all.

There’s a strong concept here. By drawing a child who identifies as a boy out into the familiar genre trappings of misjudged outlaws on the run from police, Kerrigan gets to play with a variety of tropes. She provokes us with vivid reminders that guns, so typically appealing to boys, can be a dangerous obsession no matter who gets excited about them. She intrigues us by finding the right landscape for evoking a history of pioneers, cowboys, and crooks on the run while also openly challenging those cliches.

Sasha Knight plays Joe, born with enough physical evidence to be categorized as a girl by those who categorize human beings in simplistic binary terms. But — as countless people in every era, location, and culture have been persecuted for believing — human beings are more complicated than that, and such limiting definitions do real damage. [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
As Troy, Zahn finds some quieter, softer tones to play than we’re accustomed to seeing from him — even though the movie seems to think we frequently need to see him do that high-anxiety meltdown thing he does do well and so often.

I appreciate that Kerrigan prioritizes casting a trans child actor to play a non-binary child character, and Sasha Knight is persuasive in conveying Joe’s sense of alienation and their strong affection for their father Troy. But I wonder if making that a priority made it difficult to find a young actor with a real gift for portraying complexity. Knight’s Joe is basically a small gallery of wounded expressions, which means that most of the character’s idiosyncrasy and personality comes from costumes instead of behavior.

Steve Zahn gives a compelling performance as a father who dares to listen to, and love, his distraught child. [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
Jillian Bell manages to invest the character of Joe’s mother Sally with some affecting distress when her child does not fit neatly into the gender roles that Sally’s culture recognizes. And Ann Dowd does what she can with the unremarkable character of a beleaguered police detective. But the movie can’t find much to do with either character. Sally’s big scenes come in the context of shopping where she gets anxious about toys that Joe doesn’t want and refuses to purchase those that Joe does.

Ultimately, Sally ends up being the one character bearing the full burden of representation for those who struggle to understand such complex aspects of human sexuality. And, yes, there are plenty of people in the world like Sally who refuse to accept anything but binary definitions when it comes to gender. I was brought up in Christian communities that argued that very thing. I eventually began to wrestle with the attitudes I was seeing and the opinions I was being conditioned to hold fast. Some thoughtful believers raised questions about Christ’s example of favoring a spirit of Grace over the letter of the Law. Others dared to question whether the ruinous effects of Evil in the world might also extend to causing disharmony in an individual’s physical, psychological, and spiritual chemistry, resulting in external details that contradicted the rest of a person’s makeup. Don’t the Scriptures remind us that human beings tend to “look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart”?

In the myriad ways that human beings are born into trouble, Joe’s conundrum is a problem that calls for the kind of listening, empathy, compassionate counsel, and faithfulness that Christ models in the presence of outcasts and “exceptions” who have been harshly judged by the pious and the unimaginative. I believe that we are all born into bodies, hearts, and minds that are at war with each other — and this Joe’s experience, as portrayed in Cowboys, is representative of one of the most difficult conflicts a human being can suffer because it finds them struggling not only to find peace with themselves but also peace with a hostile and condemning society that hates difference and complexity.

But, just as the complicated experiences of non-binary individuals require patient attention and understanding, so do those who judge them. We see Sally and only Sally causing trouble for everybody by insisting on narrow ideals, so it becomes too easy to judge her as merely obstinate and awful, someone who really needs to just “catch up with the enlightened.” I appreciate that Kerrigan’s script makes a few moves to suggest that there might be hope for Sally’s growth and education, but I’m still uncomfortable with how the film suggests that such prejudices are just something that people need to get over. It rarely ever goes that way.

Jillian Bell plays Sally, whose desire to raise a daughter overrides her ability to recognize and attend to what is her child is actually experiencing. [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
When right and wrong are sketched so starkly as they are here, a movie can’t arrive at much in the way of insight. Thus, in order to engage us, Kerrigan has to cultivate suspense by steering her fugitives into conventionally episodic adventures about avoiding capture rather than taking on the harder job of a nuanced, detailed investigation of gender issues.

And the final scene strikes me as a bit of wishful thinking, a contrivance meant to make us feel hopeful… but it just rings false.

Still, I’m glad Cowboys exists. We need more movies like this and Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight — films that are willing to take on complicated and discomforting questions about sexuality, that explore the struggles of young people who don’t conform to the strict, binary definitions forced upon them. (I’d go so far as to say that, while Moonlight is the stronger film in many ways, Cowboy‘s Joe is better defined as a character here than Chiron is in Jenkins’s film.)

And I’m pleased that Anna Kerrigan unfolds this story at a contemplative pace, with a strong appreciation of quiet, and with a meaningful appreciation of its Montana context.

Hopefully, we’ll see stronger films soon that explore this territory, films that avoid easy scapegoats and villains, and that help us reach more meaningful conclusions than “Why are some people so narrow-minded and cruel?! Why can’t we all just love everybody?!” We need to get into more productive explorations of causes, consequences, and possible, productive paths forward. Otherwise, it’s just another Us-Versus-Them dynamic that makes the “enlightened” feel righteous without kindling questions in anyone who might be open to exploring them.


Here is the trailer, although I would caution you: This is one of those trailers that gives away important moments from the full span of the motion picture, so it should come with major spoiler warnings.