Bull is writer-director Annie Silverstein’s feature film debut, but her background in documentary filmmaking permeates every frame. The story, penned by herself and her husband Johnny McAllister, of a wayward teenager and the ailing cowboy who with whom she forms a tenuous friendship is filled with such specificity that you’d almost believe it’s a true story.
Available through Amazon Prime this month after a successful showing at Cannes last year, Bull focuses on young Kris’ (Amber Harvard) disillusionment after her mother is imprisoned. She falls in with the wrong crowd, having little other choice in her situation, but a run-in with Abe (Rob Morgan) sets her on a different path when she must agree to work the rodeo circuit with him in exchange for not spending him in juvie herself.
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Some may consider the film too slow-paced for their tastes, but anyone who savors scene-setting and introspective character moments will find there is much to learn about Houston, the history of black American rodeo, and how unexpected human relationships can have monumental impact.
RIDING ON BULLS IN PAIN
The synopsis of Bull makes clear that Kris finds herself falling for the world of bull riding, but the movie itself takes a surprising and realistic approach to the idea. Instead of turning her into a prodigy or savant, she simply remains a troubled young girl who sees a glimmer of hope in a new world.
And that new world is not without its own set of problems, which Abe can attest to all too well. The reason he even needs Kris in the first – for everything from chores to sometimes even bringing him a glass of water – is because of how his body can no longer sustain the strain he’s put on it through years of the rodeo life.
Yolonda Ross has a minor part as Abe’s on-and-off girlfriend, but she plays a much larger role in the story because she exposes the darker side of the safe haven Kris has found. The rodeo could potentially be a way out of the cycle of poverty – if she somehow became brilliant at it – but its lifespan is short and brutal at times, and loved ones can’t always be there to pick up the pieces.
What’s really impressive about Bull, though, is the painstaking care Silverstein takes with the lifestyle she’s depicting. There are several non-actors mixed into scenes, performing real stunts and simply existing in their community, with Kris and Abe incorporated into their world naturally. A documentarian by nature, the director really draws out the truth in her fiction.
GROUNDED PERFORMANCES SEAL THE DEAL
The other selling point of Bull is the powerful performances from its two leads. Amber Harvard in particular is a revelation, given that she is so young and that this is actually her first credit. She delivers a raw energy and imbues Kris with such desolation and yearning, it’s impossible not to root for her and hurt with her in turn.
Rob Morgan is, of course, a veteran whose work remains top-notch. In a way, their onscreen dynamic mirrors their real one, with the experienced actor showing the novice the ropes of this fantastical new experience.
Bull really revolves around the two of them and their camaraderie, but Kris shares a few poignant moments with her mother that underscore just how lonely she is – and what a frightful prospect lies ahead of her if nothing changes. And while her younger sister doesn’t get many scenes either, Kris’ protective nature is revealed in those quiet moments as well.
Unlikely friendship and healing through nature are tried and true tropes in cinema, but Bull certainly finds a way to set itself apart from the clichés and live in its own truth. If you have a chance to check it out on VOD, you absolutely should.
Bull has a runtime of 108 minutes and contains both violence and nudity. Let us know your thoughts on the film in the comments below.