Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Cowboys Movie Poster Image
Touching father-son drama centers on gender identity.
  • NR
  • 2021
  • 83 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Stands out for positive messages.

Positive Messages

Promotes acceptance, love, support for people who are transgender, especially children. It addresses concept of gender identity very simply and without controversy, explaining how a person can be born in the body of one gender but identify as another. Families can be complicated, but if there's love there, that can help overcome some challenges. Despite tragedy, movie ends with a final, hopeful moment of compassion.

Positive Role Models

Joe shows bravery in coming out to his father, living honestly. Troy is a loving father with a good heart -- and he immediately accepts who Joe really is -- but he's also troubled and struggling with mental illness, fits of violence, a criminal record. Sally loves her child but has a hard time accepting the truth about who he is. Sheriff Faith is calm, rational, empathetic.


Kids fight, with punches. An adult grabs a child, shoves him up against a barrier, shouts at him. The same adult elbows another person in the face, knocking him down some stairs. Guns and shooting. Child holds a gun and threatens others with it. Person is shot; bloody wound shown. Character dies (nonviolent). Mother slaps child. Child in peril, falling into and swept away by a river (and then rescued). Armed law enforcement officers hunt fugitives down.


A man affectionately kisses his wife and slaps her bottom. They later hook up in a vehicle; nothing explicit is shown. References to attraction/chemistry between a couple.


Strong language includes uses of "f--k," "s--t," "goddamn," "d--k," "stupid," and "dyke," plus "Jesus Christ."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Character takes prescription meds for bipolar disorder. Characters drink beer while bowling. Reference to a person "going to bars" frequently. Scene at an AA meeting. Cigarette smoking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Cowboys is a drama about a transgender boy named Joe (Sasha Knight) and his troubled father, Troy (Steve Zahn), who take to the Montana wilderness to run away from the boy's mother after she refuses to acknowledge that she has a son instead of a daughter. It's ultimately a lovely, touching story about compassion and acceptance, but it has quite a bit of mature content. When Joe is bullied, Troy grabs another boy and shoves him up against a barrier; he also punches that boy's father and knocks him down some stairs. There are guns and shooting: A child holds a gun (and makes threats with it), a character is shot (bloody wound shown), and armed law enforcement officers hunt for fugitives. A character dies in a nonviolent way. A mom slaps her child, and a boy falls into a dangerous river. Strong language includes uses of "f--k" and "s--t," as well as slurs like "dyke." A husband affectionately kisses his wife and smacks her bottom; they also hook up in a vehicle (nothing graphic shown). Troy takes prescription medication for his bipolar disorder, and there's some cigarette smoking and social drinking (beer), and a scene at an AA meeting.

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What's the story?

In COWBOYS, Troy (Steve Zahn) appears to be camping in the Montana wilderness with his son, Joe (Sasha Knight), admiring the scenery. We soon learn in a flashback that Joe has, until recently, been Josephine. Touching scenes show Joe telling Troy about his true gender identity. Troy, in turn, tries to explain it to Joe's mother, Sally (Jillian Bell) -- but she thinks it's a phase brought on by Joe's idolization of Troy, and his "filling her head with cowboy stories." Troy and Sally's relationship is further tested by Troy's bipolar disorder and a stint in jail after he fights to defend Joe from a bully. When Troy finds his visitation time with Joe cut back -- and Sally refusing to accept who Joe really is -- he and Joe plan to escape into Canada, first via Troy's beat-up pickup and then via horse. Can father and son find happiness before the authorities close in?

Is it any good?

This lovely, big-hearted drama uses familiar cowboy-story elements to explore understanding, acceptance, and gender identity. While it doesn't take many risks, it's as comfortable as an old pair of boots. Written and directed by Anna Kerrigan, Cowboys uses the clichéd image of the outdoorsy "masculine man" -- with his boots, belt buckle, and shaggy beard -- as a kind of opposite here. Whatever stoic, unemotional picture those elements might conjure up is shattered when it's Troy, rather than Sally, who almost immediately understands what Joe needs. (It's important to note, though, that Sally isn't presented as a monster, but rather as someone who isn't able grasp the concept of gender fluidity.)

Cowboy accessories -- including clothes, toys, and books -- are sources of comfort for Joe, a hope for freedom to be who he really is. But images of the great, wide outdoors are blended with paranoia and Troy's increasingly manic behavior after he loses his medication. The traditional chase-through-the-wilderness story doesn't have much tension, but Cowboys seems more interested in compassion than suspense; reaching the physical destination is less important than matters of the heart. Best of all, it's great to see character actor Zahn in a rare lead role, giving everything he has in a great performance.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Cowboys explains what it means to be transgender. Is the subject treated with respect? Compassion? How do the different characters' reactions show the right and wrong way to respond to people who are transgender?

  • How did you feel about the movie's violence? How did it help tell the story? Do you think it was necessary?

  • How do the characters demonstrate courage and compassion? Why are those important character strengths?

  • What is bipolar disorder? Does the movie depict this accurately? With compassion?

  • How are drinking and smoking depicted? Are they glamorized? Are there consequences? Why does that matter?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love dramas

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