Anna Kerrigan’s new film, COWBOYS, is a touching story about accepting who your children are, that uses the masculine norms of the cinematic depiction of cowboys to situate its discussion about gender identity and gender presentation. Buoyed by strong performances showing a father-son relationship, it’s an interesting and heartfelt look at gender identity issues in a rural American context.

Sally (Jillian Bell) goes to wake up her daughter but finds the bed empty and the bedroom window open. She suspects her ex-husband and calls the police to report her missing daughter. But her daughter hasn’t been her daughter for some time. Joe (Sasha Knight) is a boy and has run away into the mountains of rural Montana with his father, Troy (Steve Zahn), to be a cowboy. Though suffering from occasional mania and erratic behaviour, Troy recognises who his son is and wants to start a new life with him.

COWBOYS alternates scenes between the past and the present. In the past, we see Joe living as a little girl coming to terms with his gender identity and how this contributes to the breakdown of Troy and Sally’s marriage. In these early scenes, the camera lingers on Joe as he scrutinises the men around him: their movements while bowling, the way they wear their plaid shirts, their boots, their belts, their hats. He watches these contemporary cowboys from the outside, knowing that this is who he should be. After Joe comes out to Troy, the two struggle with Sally’s reaction — ”You’ve got one body, one path, and God’s got the game plan” — while Troy’s mental health issues widen the growing chasm between them.

The relationships between Joe and his two parents are the emotional core of the story. The film excels during the touching scenes between father and son as Joe tells Troy about realising that he’s a boy; that he feels like “aliens put him in a girl-body as a joke”. This father-son relationship is centred during the scenes in the present, where Troy takes Joe into the mountains to start a new life across the Canadian border. Both Sasha Knight and Steve Zahn give great performances, with Knight particularly notable for his young age and Zahn balancing the big performance of his manic episodes with tender supportiveness for Joe. There’s something of Debra Granik’s wonderful LEAVE NO TRACE to these scenes of father and child journeying into the wilderness together, though COWBOYS doesn’t have the same subtlety to its discussions of mental health as LEAVE NO TRACE.

Since men’s relationships dominate the film, Sally (and Sally’s relationship with Joe) feels a little underserved. Her arc works in the context of the film, but discussions around the role of women under patriarchy and in the cultural milieu of rural Montana are alluded to rather than explored. There’s a throwaway line when Sally refuses to accept Joe’s identity and angrily asks Troy, “Who would choose to be a girl?” alluding to Sally’s feeling that “choosing” to be a boy would be an attractive option for a woman in contemporary America. As the film’s title suggests, the narrative is firmly situated on the masculine and Joe’s story as a trans boy.

This focus is emphasised through the heightened masculinity of the contemporary cowboy figure and rural American men. The cowboy figure is a fairly unique form of gender presentation — one with a well-defined tradition in cinema — and these heightened masculine norms feed into Joe’s discovery of himself in an interesting way. Situating a story about a child discovering their gender identity in the mountains of rural American allows for an interesting and emotional exploration of the subject.