Two of this week's new streaming releases - Cowboys and Once Upon a River - serve as an index of how that searching, American-transient style of filmmaking reclaimed by Kelly Reichardt and Debra Granik and taken overground by the Oscar-winning Chloe Zhao has taken root these past few years. Cowboys, written and directed by Anna Kerrigan, cuts to the chase: it's Steve Zahn, as a fuzzy, pill-popping goofball called Troy, snatching up his trans son Joe (Sasha Knight) from his ex Sally (Jillian Bell)'s Montana home, then setting off for the Canadian border on a white steed (itself stolen), trailing AMBER Alerts - not to mention cops Ann Dowd and John Reynolds - in his wake. The casting tips our hand as to where our sympathies are meant to lie. Troy may be a shambling mess, but all the evidence as presented would suggest he's a better mess for the kid than his deeply conservative mother, who gave birth to a daughter named Josie, delighted in dressing the unhappy wretch up like a doll, and now wants her baby back so as to reassert the status quo. Meanwhile, our two outlaws - little and large - canter onwards towards a new frontier of self-determinism.
Though it has the advantage of passing through some of America's most scenic landscapes, Kerrigan's film proves more conventional in both its imagemaking and storytelling than its predecessors in this field. Nomadland will lose something if watched at home while we wait for the cinemas to reopen. Cowboys, a far smaller film in many ways, really won't. Any progress is slowed by flashbacks that punch up how adoring Troy is, how set in her ways Sally is, and why Joe feels the way he feels. The kid-gloves treatment is understandable, given how contentious the issue of trans kids has been in some quarters; Kerrigan is keen to reassure any nervous centrists that no-one's making this little dude-in-distress do anything he doesn't want to do. When the kid comes out as trans (as distinct from tomboyish), it's framed as very much his own decision. Here, Cowboys arrives at the border of those fabled afterschool specials, where the aim was always to dramatise and explain an issue to concerned onlookers. What steers it away again is some very solid writing and playing.
You couldn't ask for a better exemplar of flexible parenting than Zahn's Troy, who switches from one model of thinking to another as easily as he does between four wheels and legs. Yet Bell - herself making a switch, from comedy to drama - is even more impressive in the tougher assignment, gaining viewer sympathy for the product of a deeply conservative environment, where men are men, women traditionally cook and clean, and trans is not a concept, let alone an option. (A mid-film hookup between Troy and Sally in the back of the former's pick-up lays bare how this pair got together, but also why they can't stay together; they're talking at cross-pronouns, for one thing.) Perhaps it's still a little too small overall: running to barely 80 minutes, with scant time for either Dowd or Reynolds to assert themselves, or for Kerrigan to work up the emotional amplitude of a Nomadland or Leave No Trace. It's finally gently touching rather than overwhelming, but there's surely something to be said in favour of a film that doesn't make a big deal out of journeys such as this: Cowboys trots along and nudges us forward, before sending us off with a smile on our face.
Where Cowboys hews modern in its depiction of trans parenting, Once Upon A River strikes out for something more timeless. The runaway here is a latter-day descendant of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn: 15-year-old Margo (Kenadi DelaCerna), a girl of Native American heritage, introduced roaming the backwaters of 1977 Michigan with an air rifle and a copy of an Annie Oakley biog under her arm, never happier than when sitting whittling on a riverbank watching the mallards go by. She, too, will eventually take flight, after a series of events sparked by a fling with a married neighbour, sending her out in search of a mother who herself flew the nest several years before. Her subsequent rite-of-passage allows writer-director Haroula Rose, adapting Bonnie Jo Campbell's novel, to measure herself against those nature boys and girls who've gone upriver before her, from Malick to Granik. A lot of this production was undertaken around the magic hour; there are pillow shots of the local flora and fauna; and the soundtrack is at least 65% gently strummed banjo. The white steed our heroine encounters here may or may not be symbolic in some way.
That leaves us with a softer film than Granik's Winter's Bone, the obvious point of narrative comparison, and one that most often resembles an attempt to fuse YA fiction with something indier and edgier. A campfire sex scene with a fellow traveller will leave school librarians blushing; it also feels questionably full-on, given the heroine's age. A studio variation would likely PG-13 that down with artfully placed shadows; it might also have decided on a tone sooner than Rose's film does. As things stand, this does have the look of one of those projects destined to fall between stools, too adult in its content for teens, too naive in its framing for their parents. Still, it has saving graces, not least a discovery in DelaCerna: a mutely practical presence who could be the younger sister of Certain Women's Lily Gladstone, she does a lot with big eyes in the absence of all that much dialogue. (In retrospect, the opening bout of narration feels atypically florid and a clear hangover from the book, Rose's idea of how a film like this is supposed to begin.) It also offers a cherishable rediscovery: John Ashton, memorably exasperated in so many 80s cop movies (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run), cast here as a cranky, toothless old coot with emphysema and a dog called Nightmare. Once Margo runs into him, the film starts to seem more at home; leaning into its rougher edges gives what sometimes resembles an old-school TV movie some much-needed character. As in Cowboys, the destination is a new parenting model; the path Rose takes to get there is as erratic as it is promising. Yet as we brace ourselves for the return of cinematic normality - those long, loud blockbusters with numbers in their titles and rocks in their head - it's reassuring to see emergent filmmakers who are still prepared to wander off the beaten track in search of different horizons.
Cowboys is now streaming via Curzon Home Cinema; Once Upon a River is now streaming via Curzon and Prime Video.