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In A New Take On Western Films, 'Cowboys' Showcases The Importance Of Acceptance

Still from 'Cowboys' movie
Samuel Goldwyn Films
Sasha Knight (left) and Steve Zahn (right) star together in the new movie 'Cowboys.'

Classic Western films idolize cowboys and their way of life, from looks to their sense of identity. In a modern twist, Cowboys by writer and director Anna Kerrigan takes viewers to rural Montana, where Joe, an 11-year-old transgender boy, struggles to live authentically in his home environment.

Steve Zahn stars as Troy, a father with mental health issues who makes a heroic attempt to take his son Joe on the run in search of a better life. Sasha Knight, in his debut role, plays Joe. Also starring Jillian Bell and Ann Dowd, the film is an intimate Western filled with questions of identity, masculinity and responsibility all under a big-sky backdrop.

“When it started, I really didn’t know where it was going to go. All I knew was that it was a father and son who were on the run and I was interested in exploring the idea of outlaws and what it means to be an outlaw today,” Kerrigan explains.

After working through the script, she decided the reason that they were on the run together is because Joe’s mother doesn’t accept his trans identity and his father agrees to help him run away from home.

With the release of the film, it has been identified as a movie that bucks the stereotypes of films that have a trans character in the forefront. Kerrigan says she intentionally avoided tropes because she didn’t want Joe’s gender identity to be the only thing that defined the character.

“The fact that he is trans was a catalyst for a lot of things to happen but ultimately I did not want to make a movie where that was the central focus,” she says.

Kerrigan was clear from the beginning that she wanted a non-binary or trans person to play Joe. She worked with organizations that support trans youth to put out casting calls. Despite this being his first major role, when she watched Knight’s audition, she immediately thought he was a natural.

“When I saw Sasha’s tape, I was shocked, because I felt like he already fit in so well as a child to Jillian Bell and Steve Zahn who’d already been cast,” she says. “I thought he looked a little like Paul Newman, which was adorable.”

Kerrigan hopes that this film will help show people the importance of acceptance. “I think that there is a level of acceptance that the characters get to by the end of the movie that is a lot easier for people. If we all just accepted other people, our lives would be easier,” she says.

Cowboys is available to stream through the Milwaukee Film Festival through May 20, as well as on YouTube, Amazon Video and Vimeo.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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