Learning to Be a Man
Sally (Jillian Bell) has recently separated from husband Troy (Steve Zahn), a man with mental health problems and who has done prison time for assault. Faith (Ann Dowd), a detective suspects that there’s something she hasn’t been told. A picture of the missing kid taken from Troy’s abandoned truck reveals what looks like a short-haired boy in plaid shirt and jeans and not the little girl that Sally described.
There is a sense of mystery around the child’s gender. Joe (Sasha Knight) is a trans boy and writer/director Anna Kerrigan addresses this in a matter of fact way because, it isn’t really all that important. This isn’t a film that expects its audience to be fascinated by trans people simply because they’re there. Rather, this is a story about two adults trying to raise a child and maintain a relationship even though they both still have some growing up to do of their own to do. Instead of this being a story of raising a girl who is learning to live as a boy, this is about a boy who has to start learning to be a man.
Troy’s plan, such as it is, is to take Joe through the Montana wilderness to Canada. Along the way, he loses his medication and starts to behave increasingly erratically, less and less able to cope with the emotional strain of the situation. Joe, who has always been a fan of cowboys and horses and the pulp adventure idea of life as an outlaw, realizes that he’ll need to start making the decisions if they’re going to be okay, but he understands that the first time in his life that he has no-one to look after him.
We see a lot about gender roles and how a child’s developing sense of role can impact how parents feel about themselves. Joe is an only child and Sally has tried to raise the child to be like herself yet takes Joe’s rejection of the toys and clothes that she, herself, loves personally. She’s still a loving parent, however, and we see that she has good intentions, no matter the results. Through flashbacks we see what Troy has meant to Joe as a masculine role model, and how problematic that has often been. Troy is the only person willing to respect Joe’s masculinity and it’s difficult for Joe to model himself on anyone else, difficult for him to find a healthy way of growing up and managing the pressures that life as a man brings.
The love that Sally and Troy share even after their separation complicates the story further, enabling director Anna Kerrigan to look in depth at a complex relationship dynamic. Family arguments and small, intimate moments are captured close up and the world is far away. Here is a very personal drama and a thriller.
The film opens with A boy and his father riding into the Montana wilderness after parking their pickup truck at the home of a concerned friend, borrow his horse, and then head into the woods. At the same time in a small, working-class home, a woman calls out for her daughter, realizes she’s not there, and calls the police, saying that her soon-to-be ex-husband has abducted the child.
We quickly learn that the two narrative threads concern the same kid. Whether this 12-year-old is a daughter to the mother or a son to the father is a central point of contention between the parents. To Sally, her child is a girl, whose fascination with cowboy boots and her aversion to dresses is just a phase. Troy cannot deny that Joe is a boy after he confessed his gender identity to his father. The two of them share a love of cowboy stories, and they head for Canada, supposed in search of a better place for Joe to grow up.
Sally has been raised with certain ideas that she’s afraid to abandon: she insists Joe wear dresses instead of pants because she is worried how the other kids in school would react. She rationalizes that Joe’s actions spring from a natural desire for escape because of the carefree example of a cowboy. Troy is kind, understanding, and imaginative but he struggles with bipolar disorder and alcoholism. His temper has gotten him into trouble with the law.
“Cowboys” is divided among Troy and Joe’s attempted journey to Canada, the police search for the two of them, and flashbacks to the events that led to their leaving. Throughout, the wilderness of Montana and the small town are beautifully photographed. This is a compassionate film that does not emphasize, or capitalize, on trauma and by the end, we are to believe that wounds can be healed.
Though well played by Knight (who is a transgender child), Joe is much too aware of his parents’ faults, and easily verbalizes them. Even though there are 12-year-olds who are more perceptive than others, Joe’s observations are so correct that, at times, they are not convincing. It is his character that is weakly constructed than it should be and not Knight who wonderfully portrays him. Sally and Troy are wonderfully nuanced characters in the performances by Bell and Zahn and in Kerrigan’s script. Joe, by contrast, comes across as somewhat one-note in the writing, though not in Knight’s portrayal.
The film is anunconventional take on a transgender narrative in the guise of a modern western. It defies expectations on several levels. It begins against the backdrop of a strained relationship between the mentally ill Troy, his wife Sally and their child Joe. We then move on to Troy and Joe travelling on horseback in rural Montana and heading for the Canadian border. What slowly emerges is the realization that Joe is transgender, and Troy is on a misguided mission to ‘rescue’ Joe from his mother who does nit understand her child. Joe stresses that, “I’m not a tomboy,” in a touching coming out scene to his father. “A tomboy’s just another type of girl but I’m not a girl.” This acts as an impetus for the main thrust of the film, a western fugitive chase.
It’s also important in that it makes the film less about Joe ‘coming of age’ than it does about Troy and Sally coming to terms with it. Troy is fully supportive of Joe but once he goes off his medication, he becomes a confusing model of manhood for Joe. Sally’s misgendering of Joe feels more authentic. Bell plays against type as a frustrated character having to play the strict mother..”
The film is non-linear and Troy’s leaving with Joe is not evident from the start. His marriage that is falling apart is explained in fragments. The ultimate resolution comes together a bit too quickly. Yet “Cowboys” as an alternative to other transgender films is a move in the right direction while it subverts the neo-western sub-genre.