At the heart of Cowboys is the touching story of two parents coming to understand the identity of their son, but writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s screenplay ultimately reveals itself to be an act of evasion. Perhaps that is clear right up front in the plot, which follows the son and his father part of the way through a plan to get the kid away from his mother, but it really comes through as the film concludes, in ways that are difficult to talk about without spoiling at least a bit of the intended catharsis.
It is clear from the start that Troy (Steve Zahn) and Sally (Jillian Bell) have the capacity for a lot of love for their son Joe (Sasha Knight), but as the film begins, we discover that Troy has kidnapped Joe during the night, leaving Sally to discover her child’s empty bed and open window. The details begin to fill themselves out in Kerrigan’s screenplay, but the most important one doesn’t come until at least a half-hour into the proceedings.

Joe is transgender. He describes to Troy the feeling of having been born into the wrong body ― that “an alien put me into this body as a joke.” Dad comes to understand gradually because of the directness of the conversation. Mom refuses to accept this reality, believing that Joe has been brainwashed. This is what leads to the semi-kidnapping at the center of the movie, which is divided evenly between the present, in which Troy and Joe are on the run, and the past, detailing the events that led to a clean break.

Technically, it is a kidnapping, as we learn that the getaway plan was devised not long after Troy’s stint in prison ― set for physically assaulting a family friend, whose son had begun harassing Joe for the clothing he had begun to wear. We also know that it is for the greater good of this family. Joe, who resents having been born into this family without any ability to control who he is, needs to force the issue of his identity until it becomes accepted. We know what might happen with a lack of acceptance or, at the very least, understanding. Sally needs to set aside her conservative values, and Troy needs to be near his son as the only person who sympathizes with his struggle.

This is all delicately established in a strong opening act, in large part due to the performances. Zahn is gregarious and naturally funny as Troy, but that charm is masking a lot of insecurity ― about how to raise a son he once knew as his daughter, about how to remain in an increasingly loveless marriage, about how to be a father when his life is uprooted. Bell refuses to portray Sally as a one-note monster, bringing welcome complexity to a woman who sticks to what she knows ― which manifests itself as rank bigotry, but not as simplistic villainy. Knight, as a transgender actor in a breakthrough role, traverses a lot of complex emotional terrain across just barely more than an hour.

Eventually, the distractions and evasions must raise their heads. Much of the present-day portion of the film is focused on an investigation into Troy and Joe’s disappearances by a detective (Ann Dowd), in a subplot that is utterly workmanlike (although it does provide the detective some perspective when Sally’s casual bigotry actively interferes in the basis of the investigation). As soon as Kerrigan is asked to conclude all these storylines, meanwhile, the film does so in the tidiest possible ways ― the investigation ends with something of a whimper, Troy and Joe’s getaway scheme is cut short, and the film simply skips over a major moment of character growth in Sally. Cowboys has its heart in the right place. What it lacks where it really counts is a sense of any real conviction.

Summary
Writer-director Anna Kerrigan’s screenplay ultimately reveals itself to be an act of evasion.
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