Bull, the powerful, poetic debut feature from writer-director Annie Silverstein, is a portrait of an unlikely interracial and intergenerational friendship that develops between a 14 year-old Krystal, called Kris (Amber Havard), whose mother is in jail, and her middle-aged neighbor Abe Turner (Rob Morgan of Mudbound), a former star bull rider who now wrangles thrashing bulls at modest rodeos.
Bull is rooted in neorealist tradition. The film’s use of nonprofessionals in the rodeo sequences adds authenticity and atmospheric detail to this fascinating look at the subculture of bull riding among black cowboys in rural Texas. The scenes between the main characters, particularly Kris and her mother and Kris and Abe, are crafted with an intimacy that immerses the viewer in the grim worlds of people living on the economic edge. But this is depicted without a whiff of condescension or sentimentality.
We first meet Kris as she’s disposing of a dead chicken killed by the family dog. Kris and her younger sister live with their grandmother in a shabby house on the outskirts of Houston, Texas while their mother (a terrific Sara Albright) is in prison. When Kris visits her, the longing is palpable as is the hope when mom promises a new start for the family in Oklahoma.
The chicken belonged to Abe who berates Kris as she rides her bike past his house. To impress an unruly crowd of friends, Kris breaks into Abe’s house while he’s away working a rodeo. The teens drink his booze, steal his painkillers and wreak havoc. Though angry, Abe decides not to press charges if Kris cleans up the mess. Eventually, a tentative friendship begins. The unmoored Kris begins showing up at Abe’s rodeos and develops an interest in bull riding. For Abe, whose physical and emotional wounds run deep, it’s a chance to reconnect with something he loves and is fast losing.
Like Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace and Winter’s Bone, Bull is too rooted in gritty realism to fall into easy cliches about redemption or to offer pat resolutions. As she proved with her superb, award-winning 2014 short film Skunk, Silverstein portrays marginal lives with unflinching honesty and heart-wrenching humanity.