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Unlikely bonds that blossom across the age divide have long been a staple of big-screen storytelling, prompting plenty of cringes and eye rolls along the way. But the really good movies about intergenerational friendship — Sean Baker’s Starlet and Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd are semi-recent examples — don’t clobber you with the warm-and-fuzzy joy of a younger and an older person connecting. Their emotional pull comes from how fragile the ties binding the two characters are — how tenuous and tentative and awkward.
One of the strengths of Bull, a modest, plaintively lovely debut feature from writer-director Annie Silverstein, is its steadfast lack of sentimentality about its central duo: a 14-year-old white girl living on the rural outskirts of Houston and her neighbor, a middle-aged black ex-bull-rider. Like the film itself, the attachment that forms between them is low-key and delicate, made of stoic silences and an affection that’s tacit rather than expressed.
In addition to tracing a slow-building mutual respect and love, Bull offers a clear-eyed, condescension-free portrait of American struggle, fleshed out with authentic detail and imbued with a deeply lived-in sense of fading hopes and day-to-day economic precariousness. There’s a familiarity to the filmmaking here; you can see the influence of directors like Debra Granik (Leave No Trace), Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), Chloe Zhao (The Rider) and Lance Hammer (Ballast), whose naturalistic chronicles of life on the hardscrabble margins have ranked among the finest U.S. indies of the last several years.
Silverstein (whose short film Skunk won a prize at Cannes in 2014) isn’t yet working at that level; on the basis of this movie, she’s still figuring out how to sidestep narrative cliché and prevent her pacing from turning too drifty. But it’s a testament to the sincerity and specificity of her vision that Bull never feels derivative. This is an affecting, admirably disciplined first film, one that patiently enfolds you rather than pandering for your attention.
We first find Kris (newcomer Amber Havard) cleaning up after the family dog, giving her grandma (Keeli Wheeler) an insulin shot, going about the daily business of scraping by. With her dated, faded clothes, her flat affect, sweaty ponytail and slouched shoulders, Kris is a vision of youth beaten down by circumstance. Her mother is in prison, leaving her to help raise her little sister (Keira Bennett), and she’s been getting into fights at school.
One night, trying to impress some classmates, Kris breaks into the nearby home of Abe (Mudbound‘s Rob Morgan), a hard-boozing, painkiller-popping former rodeo star whose age and injuries have relegated him to wrangling bulls rather than riding them. Returning to a ransacked house, a pissed-off Abe calls the police, but agrees to let Kris go if she helps clean up. (“Can’t you just take me to juvie?” Kris asks the cop on the scene, suggesting a devastatingly fatalistic view of her own future.)
Over the next few days of grunt work, she and Abe settle into an unspoken détente. Later, she tags along with him to a gathering of other black rodeo workers and their families, where she rides “the barrel,” a contraption that simulates the experience of straddling a bucking bull. Kris is intrigued, sparked by the novelty of something — anything — outside her bleak routine, and, perhaps unconsciously, by the challenge of exerting control amid turbulence, something she can’t always do in her everyday life. When she goes to her first rodeo, her usually impassive face flickers with wonder.
Kris starts peppering Abe with questions about bull-riding; he responds to her curiosity, eventually giving her a few lessons. A friendship develops in fits and starts, though the screenplay (by Silverstein and Johnny McAllister) wisely never overstates their closeness or its redemptive power. This is not the uplifting story of a girl who discovers a passion that lifts her out of poverty; the threats of drugs and sexual exploitation — and the temptation of fast money — loom even as Kris tries to focus on her new hobby.
Nor, thankfully, is the movie a sort of rodeo Green Book, in which a white person is rehabilitated by a saintly black figure. On the contrary, the film’s approach toward race is sweepingly nondidactic, its protagonists’ skin color never explicitly addressed. This comes across as a function of the movie’s subtlety rather than skittishness; the unmistakable wariness with which Kris and Abe initially look at each other, as well as the casual racism that surrounds them (the N-word is dropped nonchalantly by more than one white character), tells us what we need to know.
At its heart, Bull is less about two souls “saving each other” — that soggiest of premises — than it is about people doing the daunting, but necessary work of being human: stepping outside their comfort zones, forgiving and helping each other, making space for the unexpected in lives that seem grimly predetermined, finding reasons to get out of bed in the morning.
Havard is an austere screen presence, and her performance has an unadorned quality befitting a character whose existence has largely been drained of pleasure. But she’s also an intuitive actress, making sure we see Kris’ grit and openness, her decency as well as her despair. She’s well matched by the quietly magnetic Morgan, who conveys both bone-deep exhaustion and a macho stubbornness that keeps Abe going even as his body and spirit flag.
Bull draws the viewer in with small, telling moments that enrich our understanding of these lives, our sense of their texture and rhythms: Kris visiting her mom (Sara Albright) in jail, biking with her sister or strolling with new friends; Abe shooting the shit with his rodeo buddies. These glimpses are as key to the film’s verisimilitude as the life-worn faces of the largely nonprofessional supporting cast and the sounds of chirping crickets, clucking chickens and janky screen doors slamming that punctuate the many stretches of silence.
Like a lot of independent filmmakers, Silverstein (working with DP Shabier Kirchner) has a visual style that owes much to Belgium’s Dardenne brothers: The handheld camera trails after characters, often pausing to linger in close-up beside them, and the shallow depth of field suggests the constraints of their respective worlds. Extra credit is due for a handful of nerve-rackingly visceral inside-the-arena rodeo sequences.
Bull isn’t without shortcomings. Scenes involving an old flame of Abe’s (Yolonda Ross) are a bit contrived, telling us things the film has already shown. And as good as Morgan is, Abe at times veers perilously close to a type — the grumpy, washed-up cowboy with a heart of gold — in a way that’s conspicuous amid the movie’s otherwise committed realism.
Still, most of Silverstein’s moves are smart ones, including her exceedingly sparing use of William Ryan Fritch’s unobtrusive but effective score. It’s a choice that feels appropriate for a film whose guiding principle is powerful restraint, right up to the shattering simplicity of the final shot.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Bert Marcus Productions, Invisible Pictures
Director: Annie Silverstein
Screenplay: Annie Silverstein, Johnny McAllister
Cast: Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolonda Ross, Sara Albright, Keeli Wheeler, Keira Bennett, Steven Boyd
Producers: Monique Walton, Bert Marcus, Heather Rae, Ryan Zacarias, Audrey Rosenberg
Executive producers: Cassandra Thornton, Johnny McAllister, Jess Jacobs, Sandhya Shardanand
Cinematographer: Shabier Kirchner
Editor: Miguel Schverdfinger, Todd Holmes
Music: William Ryan Fritch
Production designer: Meredith Lippincott
Costume designer: Sarah Maiorino
Casting: Vicky Boone, Chantel, Italia Johnson
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