Cowboys is about Joe riding off into the Montana wilderness with his dad to escape his transphobic mother who is determined to raise Joe as a girl. Steve Zahn radiates warmth as the kind of dad we all want, a man who has his kid’s back. Sasha Knight is excellent as Joe, giving a mature and nuanced performance beyond his years. Anne Dowd is, as always, a consummate gem as the empathetic cop on their trail, just wanting to see everyone safe and sound without taking one side or another. And Jillian Bell plays the self-involved mother who can’t see her kid for the the daughter that she wanted to dress up like a doll in matching outfits.
It’s hard because obviously the mother is the least sympathetic of the bunch. She seems jealous of her husband’s love for his kid, and resentful of their child’s draw on his attention. She turns every conversation back to being about her, and makes out that even Joe being trans is somehow a spiteful rejection, as if he has rejected her motherly bond down even to rejecting her gender.
But she is not simply vilified. She talks about how her husband gets to be ‘the cool dad’ while she has to be the disciplinarian, she has to raise their kid, and keep house, and bring in money, and pay bills, and be the miserable, responsible one. “Who would chose to be a girl?” she asks. No one would volunteer to take the second-class option out of the choice of genders. Which, yeah, has its own logic to it. Except women who reject their second-class status have for generations become feminists, and the only people who transition are trans men.
I know I criticise a lot of movies for making being trans the central problem of the story, but Cowboys very much feels like transphobia is the central problem of the story. Joe’s mum, not Joe, is the one with the problem, she is the cause of the issue that sparks the journey and sets off the tale. It’s not really Joe’s arc that is the resolution of the film, it is his mother’s experience of being without her child that makes her realise just how lucky she was to have Joe, and to let go of the things that were driving him away. Nothing is mentioned about Joe’s transition medically or bodily. It is utterly irrelevant to the point. This film is about accepting the people we love for who they are.