An American entry at this year’s “Un Certain Regard” section, Annie Silverstein’s “Bull” wants to be an authentic portrayal of teen angst in a rural and impoverished Texan town. The film is driven by an impressively concise and unemotional performance from Amber Havard, playing the fatherless 14-year-old protagonist, Kris, whose mother (Sara Albright) is behind bars. Grandma (Keeli Wheeler) takes over legal guardian duties, but she can only do so much as Kris has a knack of hanging with the wrong crowd in her south Texan neighborhood.
On a weekend evening, Kris leads her crew into breaking into the house of African-American neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan) and using his alcohol stash to party until the break of dawn. The morning after, a drunk and bewildered Kris forgets to go back home, and instead sleeps on the back porch of Abe’s house, leading to trouble upon his return home. The cops are called, and Kris, in a move of sheer desperation, and not wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps, accepts a plea instead of being brought to court: she will help Abe with errands around the house for an undetermined period of time. She discovers Abe was a Professional Bull Rider who now mostly works as a rodeo protection athlete; he’s the diversion for the bulls to chase around when the cowboys are scrambling for safety. This intrigues Kris. No surprise, if you’ve noticed the film’s title. Not only does a complicated friendship begin, but Kris starts her own brooding passion for the sport of bullriding.
Silverstein infuses her familiar small-town story with timely American topics such as the opioid crisis (bull-riding is seen as a way out of selling Oxycodone pills for Kris), toxic male masculinity and racial segregation. If this drama feels stagnant throughout, SIlverstein does try to avoid the clichés that come with such a story being told on-screen, but she can’t escape the fact that this is the fourth movie in just two years tackling a similar subject matter — more precisely, the trope of using a wild animal as a metaphor for human redemption and freedom (“The Rider,” “Lean on Pete,” “The Mustang”).
Working predominantly with nonprofessional actors, Silverstein and her husband-co-writer, Johnny McAllister, wrote the cinema-verité screenplay as a follow-up to the story that was implanted in “Skunk,” the director’s 2014 Cannes-winning short. In a way, one wishes that Silverstein, who seems to be allergic to sentimentality (which is a good thing), would just embrace the story in “Bull” and run with the clichés that come with it. By avoiding familiarity like the plague, the writer-director corners herself into a whirlwind of dramatic restrictions, which render her film flat and unavoidably stilted. Despite strong turns from Havard and Morgan, we’re left with a movie that is in constant search of its own identity but never truly finds it. [C+]