After generating acclaim at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in the “Un Certain Regard” section, Anne Silverstein’s mesmerizing debut “Bull” finally arrives stateside. For a slice-of-life western with minimal dialogue, there’s plenty to unpack from this tale of two spirited residents of an impoverished Houston, Texas community. Formerly untrained actress Amber Harvard is a quiet tornado of insolence as 14-year-old Kris, her brooding acts of rebellion doing most of the talking. Her mother is in prison for an undisclosed crime, leaving her grandmother to raise Kris and her younger sister in the hopes that better opportunities await for the family upon their mom’s release.
Meanwhile, their neighbor Abe (a reserved yet deeply affecting Rob Morgan) is an aging bullfighter who refuses to acknowledge that his prominent career is on its way out to pasture. When he’s away for work one weekend, Kris breaks into Abe’s house to use it for underage partying. To pay for vandalizing his property, Abe tasks Kris with chicken coop maintenance and errand assistance, which eventually brings her to a black rodeo training site. There, she becomes enamored by the energy surrounding the bullfighting profession and yearns to be a rider. The stirring cross-generational drama prefers a slow trot to a furious gallop, its two leads enduring the adversity of life while admiring its natural beauty.
Abe softens to the teenage terror once he sees her rage is quelled by this new atmosphere. Soon thereafter, he agrees to casually train Kris as a future rider, all the while too fearful to confront his own departure from the lifestyle. Pouring everything he has into one skill to earn a living means an early retirement represents expiration. Because of child labor laws, Kris’s only source of income-based work is the illegal kind. However, the temptation of making good money by selling oxycodone comes with the drawback of potentially squashing her dreams before reaching adulthood. Despite the vast openness of their surroundings, Abe and Kris are unable to cross the barrier of poor socioeconomic standing.
Anne Silverstein is a master of elongating the hopelessness of destitution. Characters move through the frame with languid motion, never finding the need to rush an interaction or event. In this respect, the small miracles of existence are cherished more, the animal ecosystem intrinsic to the natural order of pastoral America. Ultimately, “Bull” is about acknowledging the finite possibilities of rural existence while drawing inspiration from those with an appetite for change. As bad as it can be, Abe’s desire for alcohol doesn’t match his zest for working, even to the ruination of his personal happiness. Sexual rendezvouses with ex-girlfriend Sheila (Yolanda Ross) are a painful reminder that his perilous vocation offers no foundation for romantic stability.
Rob Morgan has always been a gifted character actor, but here Silverstein gives him the opportunity to show how formidable he is at shepherding the narrative. Morgan makes a conscious effort of never overshadowing his scene partner’s contributions, granting newcomer Harvard the confidence to improvise lines into believable adolescent banter. As the relationship deepens between Abe and Kris, the more open they are to softening the gruffness that’s kept them guarded for so long, even from themselves. Silverstein packs an introductory punch by demonstrating how structurally enforced complacency in the South remains an impediment for progress.
“Bull” is distributed by Samuel Goldwyn Films and will release on digital and VOD beginning Friday, May 1, 2020.