Producers: Gigi Graff, Anna Kerrigan, Dylan Sellers and Chris Parker   Director: Anna Kerrigan   Screenplay: Anna Kerrigan   Cast: Steve Zahn, Jillian Bell, Sasha Knight, Ann Dowd, Gary Farmer, Chris Coy, John Reynolds, Bob Stephenson, John Beasley and A.J. Slaght   Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade: B

Anna Kerrigan’s film about an estranged couple confronting their pre-teen daughter’s identification as a boy is obviously an example of contemporary cinema’s concern with transgender issues, but while hardly devoid of a message, “Cowboys”  takes the unusual form of an engagingly quirky drama that’s part domestic story and part adventure tale.

The film opens in medias res, as the saying goes, with Troy (Steve Zahn) and Joe (Sasha Knight) in the majestic Montana wilderness, apparently on a father-and-son outing.  The vistas, beautifully shot by J.P. Wakayama Carey and accompanied by the twangs of Gene Back’s western-accented score, are immediately followed by a short scene of Sally (Jillian Bell), coming to Joe’s bedroom in the morning and finding the child gone, the curtain billowing in an open window. 

Cut to the cabin of Robert Spottedbird (Gary Farmer), where Troy stops by to ask if he and Joe can spend the night, saying they’re on a camping trip.  In the morning, Robert discovers that Troy has left his pickup and taken Joe off on a horse instead.  Back at Sally’s house, she’s called in the police, in the person of laid-back Faith (Ann Dowd), to report Joe kidnapped by her father, who suffers from bipolar disorder and has been in trouble with the law before.

A typical child custody case?  Not at all, as is quickly revealed in a flashback to a family barbeque at which Joe, with long blonde hair, is in a dress.  From that point we see, in a succession of scenes set in the present juxtaposed with flashbacks, what has happened since then—Troy reacting sympathetically to Joe’s revelation about gender identification while Sally refuses to accept it, the altercation Troy got into with his brother-in-law Jerry (Clay Coy) after the latter’s son Stevie (A.J. Slaght) taunted Joe (the cause of Troy’s trouble with the law), and Troy’s agreement to take Joe to Canada to begin a new life with him. 

Juxtaposed with these scenes are others showing the pursuit of the duo by the authorities, with Faith representing a quiet voice of reason as more aggressive forces are sent into the field, and the unraveling of Troy’s haphazard plans as he goes off his meds and grows increasingly unstable, leaving Joe more and more doubtful about continuing their journey. 

That might sound as though “Cowboys” was heading toward a downbeat ending, but though there are dark moments, in the end it’s a hopeful story—even insofar as Troy is concerned.  He’s a character that allows Zahn to show off both his lowbrow charm and his ability to segue into near-hysteria.  Bell is cast somewhat against type, but comes through with a nuanced turn and Knight proves the rare child actor capable of holding his own in scenes with such formidable personalities, while Dowd is a deadpan delight as the dedicated but undemonstrative cop; and it’s always good to see Farmer, even though his short stint here is hardly a demanding one.  Lance Mitchell’s production design gives the small-town scenes an authentic look, while Jarrah Gurrie’s editing can’t conceal the jumpiness of the chronological shifts but minimizes their divisive effect.

“Cowboys”—titled after Joe’s interest in cowpoke duds (a hankering for which Sally blames Troy)—deals with a subject that might ordinarily make some people uncomfortable, but treats it so gently that the result is comforting, even rather sweet, and should upset nobody.