Cowboys is the latest entry in a subgenre that is certainly interesting to explore: LGBTQ Americana, which has been witnessed in pop culture as far ranging as Brokeback Mountain to that cowboy guy from Village People. The wrenching of the cowboy from the cold dead hands of toxic masculinity has long been a subject of fascination for artists. These stories are usually centered on gay men, but this particular entry is focusing on a trans storyline, which adds a necessary bit of freshness to the mix.

Cowboys tells the story of Troy (Steve Zahn), a Montana dad struggling with bipolar disorder. When his transgender son Joe (Sasha Knight) asks for help escaping from his unaccepting mother Sally (Jillian Bell), he secrets the kid off into the wilderness with a stolen horse and an eye for the Canadian border. Throughout the film we follow the events that led up to this daring escape, father and son's travails in the wilderness, and the search and rescue mission led by detective Faith Erikson (Ann Dowd).


While I'm always pleased to see another narrative join the all too small group of films and television shows featuring prominent trans characters, something that will likely put a strain of Cowboys' overall longevity is its focus on the parents. The story is explored through the relationship between a cis male figure and a cis female figure as they approach a mutual understanding of tolerance, rather than giving the actual trans character a lot to do.

Any queer cineaste (a group which I can hopefully include myself) will instantly file this under the "For the Straights" subheader. While material about coming to accept trans people as valid human beings is certainly necessary for informing and guiding people who haven't yet been exposed to those ideas, for those of us who have been involved in the queer community long enough, it feels like being a college grad forced to attend a kindergarten class.

That's not to say it's bad any more than learning your alphabet is bad. It's just not something you need if you already have your basics down. Fortunately, it does deliver enough in other regards, both as a family drama and as more proof for the theory that you can't go wrong pointing your camera at a breathtakingly beautiful landscape.


As an exercise in giving Steve Zahn and Jillian Bell something to do, Cowboys is certainly an unimpeachable success. Zahn is riveting as a man who is an excellent parent and caring person but whose mind betrays him into making decisions he's not entirely capable of properly evaluating in the moment, and Bell is diverting from her comfort zone of deadpan humor to deliver a shaded, resolutely human character study. The script doesn't serve her arc particularly well, relegating her most important turning point offscreen, but by crafting such a complete and believable person she papers over the holes in her character.

I suppose I should drop a word in praise of Ann Dowd, but come on. It's Ann Dowd! She's reliable as ever, playing a hard as nails detective with a heart of gold. She could chew this part up in her sleep.

All in all, Cowboys is a completely satisfying indie picture that will kill 80 minutes without regret. It's a solid family drama, despite not being queer in a way that piques my interest even a tiny bit. It doesn't do a whole hell of a lot to rise above the many many solid family dramas that come out of the indie circuit, but gee isn't Montana pretty?

Be sure to check out Rob & Carrie's interview with the director and stars of the film!

Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter, if you feel like it.