Bull, a new film focusing on an unlikely intersection of cross-generational dead-end lives in a mostly ignored poverty-stricken area on the outskirts of Houston may not seem like much of a pick-me-up during these challenging times. And while it’s not a crowd-pleaser, it is pleasing in a high-quality independent filmmaking kind of way – especially to those of us who thrive on such projects. Writer-director Annie Silverstein’s first feature film was co-written with Johnny McAllister and Josh Melrod, and it never tries to impress with any cleverness or trickery, and instead allows us to wallow in the harshness of a world that has its inhabitants grasping for hope.
We first see 14-year old Krystal (Kris) and her little sister messing with a chicken that’s been killed by their pet pit bull in the backyard. The chicken belongs to their African-American neighbor Abe, who threatens to shoot the dog if it comes in his yard again.
Kris spends an inordinate amount of time taking care of her little sister. They live with their constantly annoyed grandmother while their mom is serving prison time. Jailhouse visits begin with hugs, and end with frustration. Kris seizes on an opportunity while neighbor Abe is gone for a weekend rodeo. She invites her friends over and they raid Abe’s liquor and pain pills, and trash his house. The kids all have fun, but Abe is understandably upset when he returns home.
In a show of mercy towards Kris’ grandmother, Abe agrees to allow Kris to clean up the party mess rather than be arrested and shipped off to juvenile detention. Very slowly, Abe and Kris begin to bond. She is fascinated by middle-aged Abe’s history. He was once a bull rider, and now he’s a bullfighter – one of the guys in the arena who distracts the bulls so the riders can escape safely after their ride. His body and spirit are broken, and he’s constantly in pain and sore. Kris, a sullen teenager, carries her own pain. Her situation is such that we (and Abe) find it difficult, if not meaningless, to judge her. She desperately wants to be loved and cared for, but finds none of that through her family or “friends.”
Rob Morgan, who was so memorable in Mudbound (2017), plays Abe, a man who fights to maintain his dignity in a profession more conducive to younger folks, and with a body that continues to fail a bit more with each gore. He has some type of relationship with his ex, Sheila (Yolanda Ross), but mostly he’s alone and quiet until he’s around his fellow rodeo performers. Newcomer Amber Havard plays Kris, and captures the confusion and hurt with subtle facial movements of an actress far more experienced. The moment her mother (Peggy Schott) lets her down yet again is gut-wrenching, and we feel Kris’ pain every bit as much as we feel Abe’s pain at the tip of a bull horn.
Ms. Silverstein’s film is surely to draw comparisons to the excellent The Rider (2017), with its understated approach, and power in the quietness and stillness. It touches on African-American rodeos, and provides a contrast with ‘white’ rodeos, while also showing us the sex and drug issues facing young Kris. With its multi-generational view of life, we see a girl desperate for a role model, and a man coming to terms with loneliness. Kris and Abe prove quite the odd couple as she finds a glimmer of hope in her desire to become a bull rider, and Abe finds a companion and reason to carry on. The two fine performances help us deal with the often bleak daily lives of Kris and Abe, and Ms. Silverstein directs her film in such a visceral way that, as viewers, we are appreciative when the cloud lifts just a bit.
Bull is available on Amazon Prime.