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Director Annie Silverstein’s first feature film takes a classic story and refurbishes it handsomely. In “Bull,” which premiered as part of the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes, Krystal (Amber Havard) and her younger sister live in a small town in Texas with their grandma, who looks after them while their mother is serving time in prison. When Kris wanders through the yard of her neighbor and tough bull-rider, Abe (Rob Morgan), she stumbles upon a key and breaks into his house. In a move to establish social credibility amongst a group of teenagers, Kris invites them all over and they purge themselves in his liquor storage, wreaking havoc throughout the house. When Abe finds her the next morning, Kris runs away. But when he calls 911 and then offers to let her off the hook from officials under the condition that she cleans up his house, it seems like Kris almost wants to follow in the footsteps of her mother: She asks the policewoman, “Can’t you just take me to juvie?”
As Kris runs errands for Abe, she learns that he’s an accomplished bull-rider. Well past his prime but also refusing to let go of his sport, Abe brings Kris to his rodeos and into the African-American cowboy community. Her curiosity about the sport grows, and what began as an obligation to remediate her crimes progressively turns into voluntary time spent together.
Silverstein successfully pulled off the stint of working with a cast of mostly with non-professional actors. Newcomer Havard has a wiser-than-her-age look in her eyes, and her film debut in “Bull” proves her acting potential. Her vapid expression is more than just a detached teenager attitude; Kris rarely shows emotion throughout the film. Though Abe’s world seems foreign for Kris, it clearly provides a better future, considering that her alternative is to hang out with drug-dealing teenagers — and even deal some drugs herself. Still, Silverstein adds elements that make it more convincing as to why Kris plays with that fire: The main drug dealer is an old friend of her mom’s, and money is really tight. Besides, teenagers are all irrational and in the process of exploring themselves, so they’re allowed some leeway to make irrational decisions, right? Havard hardly engages in conversations with others — neither of the protagonists are especially talkative, and they never explicitly discuss their relationship. Instead, the the film’s strength comes from Silverstein’s subtleness in weaving together the tried-and-true themes of coming-of-age and an “unlikely pair” formng a bond, and the few creative sparks she adds here and there. That’s not to say the film still doesn’t still follow a mostly predictable trajectory with stereotypical elements: When Abe remarks on Kris’s stubbornness, calling her “flea” (“You get flicked off, then you get back on,” Abe half-jokingly says), both the use of nicknaming as a gesture of affection and the nickname itself feel too hackneyed.
As different as their disadvantages are — Abe as an injured and aging black man in the South trying to stay in the rodeo circuit, and Kris as the impoverished daughter of an inmate mixing with druggies — Silverstein doesn’t provide much more insight into either world. She treats the racial topic with caution, never directly addressing it, and her portrayal of the black rodeo community lacks depth. However, she does stay clear of making Abe a “Magical Negro,” giving him a painkiller dependency and unrealistic attachment to bullriding. The generational difference makes it natural for Abe to serve as a parental figure for Kris — again, fulfilling a trope — but Morgan portrays the role quite convincingly. Especially outstanding in his acting are his moments of struggle, mostly in (or thinking about) the bullriding ring, a non-sustainable lifestyle he can’t seem to escape. Silverstein also stays focused on capturing Kris’s coming-of-age journey in her particularly challenging circumstances, instead of falling into an all-too-common method of scooping up a teenager from a disadvantaged background and playing up their talents until they are discovered and recognized for them.
Silverstein, who wrote the screenplay with Johnny McAllister, based “Bull” on her short film “Skunk,” which won the 2014 Cinnefondation prize at Cannes. Though some may be wary of the well-tread human-animal storyline, graceful execution, as Silverstein provides, can still result in an alluring film (such as Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s “The Mustang” that came out earlier this year). Silverstein predictably uses the bull as an allegory for Abe and Kris’s lives, but her careful treatment of the well-tread story still results in an interesting, albeit simplified, look into the difficulties faced by two disadvantaged Americans.
—Staff writer Lucy Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @lucyywang22
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