Cowboys reminded me of that old saying about how the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. This movie is nothing but good intentions, yet it's an aggravating experience anyway. A very good, relevant premise gets wasted in this dour drama, thanks to an overwrought screenplay that assumes the audience needs to have every single thing spelled out to them. It's a real shame, because the story addresses something important.

Steve Zahn plays Troy, a father who kidnaps his son Joe (Sasha Knight) and begins making his way through the Montana wilderness toward Canada. Meanwhile, his estranged wife Sally (Jillian Bell) works with a law enforcement officer (Ann Dowd) to track him down. Flashbacks reveal what's really going on. Joe was born a girl and believes she was misgendered. Troy accepts his desire to live as a boy, whereas Sally is intent on forcing him to wear dresses and play with Barbie dolls. That's why Troy has taken off with him.

For starters, everything about Cowboys is black or white. Troy is a thoroughly supportive parent who loves his child; Sally cruelly makes her love conditional, even screaming at Joe when he wants to buy a book about cowboys. Neither of them exhibit any gray area in their thinking, nor do we learn why they hold their respective views. They are Important Symbols, not characters. The film has no interest in sincerely examining how parents would react if their child identified as the opposite gender when it can simply paint in broad strokes instead.

A worse sin is that writer/director Anna Kerrigan throws in a lot of artificial drama that ranges from unintentionally funny to annoyingly stupid. Troy, for example, can't just be a concerned dad. He also has to be suffering from Bipolar Disorder, which allows him to lose his medication on the trek and therefore start behaving erratically. At another point, with apparently no clue how to advance the plot to its next phase, Kerrigan tosses in an accidental shooting that serves no purpose other than to allow authorities to pinpoint Troy's location. It and the significant emotional ramifications that would certainly occur afterward are completely abandoned.

Cowboys plays like that throughout. A movie about a trans child could have a positive influence, but this one is just so melodramatic and over-simplistic that it's practically a disservice. Zahn, Bell, and Knight all work valiantly to bring life to the material. When the material is this basic and unformed, though, all the hard work in the world won't make the picture effective.

out of four

Cowboys is unrated, but contains adult language, violence, and some sexual situations. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.