The lead character of Bull is a teenage girl on a collision course with disaster. Everything in her life is pointing her in the wrong direction. Something comes along that could put her on a better path, but it's far from a sure thing, and she may not recognize the value of it in time anyway. Director Annie Silverstein takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, and it leads to a powerful, emotion-filled story. Bull is really special.
Amber Harvard makes a stunning acting debut as 14-year-old Kris. Her mother Janis (Sara Allbright) is in jail, so she and her younger sister live with their disapproving grandmother. Kris is already on a bad road, having instigated a fight in school. Then she hosts a party at the home of her neighbor Abe (Just Mercy's Rob Morgan) while he's out of town. The drug-using, racism-spouting peers she's trying to impress leave the place a wreck. Abe comes home, finds the mess, and calls the police, eventually opting not to press charges so long as Kris cleans up.
Abe used to be a professional rodeo star. Now he's one of those people who distract the bulls once the rider falls off. An injury threatens his ability to even do that. Kris takes an interest in his work and wonders if she could make money as a young rider, so he teaches her some of the basics. Once it becomes clear that Janis isn't going to get sprung from the joint anytime soon, Kris feels like she has to take responsibility for herself and her sister. I won't spoil what happens, but an unfortunate opportunity comes along – one that threatens to derail her admittedly long-shot plan of riding bulls.
The plot of Bull probably sounds predictable. Abe heals Kris by teaching her a skill, and she heals him by offering a chance to become a mentor, right? That's not quite what happens, though. Silverstein isn't interested so much in the hard plot points as she is in what the characters learn about themselves. The film is reminiscent of a Jim Jarmusch picture in the low-key way it focuses on the spaces in between the big “moments.” It observes these two characters without judgment, inviting us to watch as they make decisions, assess the impact of those decisions, and proceed accordingly. Bull leaves us not with a firm grasp on where Abe and Kris end up, but rather with a sense of where they might go once the end credits roll.
Their personal arcs are very compelling. Abe is trying to hold on to some sense of his professional worth. Kris, meanwhile, has to decide whether to be a screw-up like her mom or make a different choice. In what might be the single most powerful scene, she visits Janis in jail and has the crushing disappointment of realizing her mother is never going to be a role model. As their individual characters, both actors are superb. Morgan poignantly conveys Abe's sense of loss, and Harvard subtly captures the directionless feeling of a teen girl with no one to guide her.
Bull is remarkable for its authenticity. Scenes showing life on the black rodeo circuit in Texas are fascinating, as is the look at how bull riders train. Outside that milieu, Silverstein and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner plunge us into a world of rural poverty, where people see few means of escaping that don't involve drugs or crime. In some respects, the movie reminded me of Winter's Bone for how it palpably simulates life in the most desolate of places.
This isn't just a movie you watch, it's one you feel in your gut. Bull has such a truthful vibe, both in its setting and its characterization, that it easily keeps you transfixed.
out of four
Bull is unrated, but contains profanity, sexuality/nudity, and drug use among teens. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.