Director Annie Silverstein’s modest feature debut Bull, about a washed up rodeo rider and a wayward teen in suburban Texas, played in the Un Certain Regard category at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and is about to become available on VOD.
14-year-old Kris (first-timer Amber Havard) is more or less raising herself and her younger sister as well as looking after her grandma, while her mother serves a prison sentence. After causing damage to her neighbour’s property one evening, (that of Abe, played by Rob Morgan), Kris is given an opportunity to make amends and avoid punishment by helping Abe with clearing up the mess. Thus begins the relationship between troubled teen and washed-up middle-aged man which, by the end, brings them both a modicum of solace and connection in what is otherwise a lonely and morose existence.
Bull is far from sentimental in its treatment of this relationship; the resolution is not one to raise hope too much, but in its quiet observations it does allow these two very different people to realise that each has something to offer the other.
Different though the protagonists are, deep down they both have something in common – anger at not having control over their lives. Kris, a white teen whose incarcerated mom is full of dreams for their future that the daughter realises will never come true; Abe, a middle-aged black man whose livelihood depends, as it always has, on putting his body in the way of reckless beasts, a body which continues to fail him. But they both bury the anger so deep that emotion is expressed in a very subdued manner, such that when Kris eventually smiles, it’s completely unexpected.
The quietness and stillness that permeates their story does have the disadvantage of making things feel somewhat one-note at times, and occasionally scenes take just a little too long to come to the point. But director Annie Silverstein does appear to have some interesting perspectives to share and seems to be feeling her way to her true voice in this her feature debut.
Bull would struggle a lot more if it weren’t for two really strong performances from the central pair. Rob Morgan looks as if he could just crumple up at any moment under the weight of his sadness and Amber Havard – if she’s acting and not just being – is one to watch for the future.
A more modest film than something with the same ambience such as The Mustang or Lean on Pete, Bull still manages to avoid cliché however and hints at good things to come from the filmmaker.