As a metaphor for life, bull-riding does the job.
Consider: you climb aboard an ornery, horned creature hundreds (or thousands) of pounds bigger than you, hold tight and try to maintain your balance while the bull whirls and bucks, determined to unseat you. If you’re lucky, you’ll manage to stay aboard for a few seconds. And, when you inevitably hit the dirt, it’ll hurt — but cause no permanent damage. Which means there’ll be a next time.
That’s the undercurrent running through Bull, an absorbing and carefully observed character study marking director Annie Silverstein’s feature debut. (Bull competed for the Camera d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Silverstein won the festival’s Cinefondation award in 2014 for her short Skunk.)
On the surface, Bull’s characters couldn’t be more different. One’s white, one’s black. One’s a teenager, one’s a grizzled adult fighting to retain his place in the only world he knows.
We first meet 14-year-old Krystal (Amber Havard), wary yet reckless, living a hardscrabble existence in a pin-dot Texas town with her diabetic grandmother (Keeli Wheeler) and her little sister (Keira Bennett). Where’s Krystal’s mom? In prison, struggling — unsuccessfully — to rein in her screw-up tendencies.
As a vulnerable teen, Krystal’s desperate to be accepted by the cool kids. So she volunteers a neighbor’s place as the site of a weekend bash, where they drink the booze and pop the pills on hand and thoroughly trash the place.
Owner Abe Turner (tough, ruefully tender Rob Morgan) isn’t there. He’s at a rodeo, working as a bullfighter protecting cowboys — because he’s too old and battered to ride bulls himself.
When Abe discovers what Krystal and her pals have done, he decides to have her arrested — but relents, demanding she clean up the mess instead.
Thus begins a tentative relationship that blossoms into an undeniable bond between a youngster in desperate need of a positive parental figure and an oldster who needs someone to focus on — beyond his beat-up self.
At times, Bull’s reach exceeds its wide-ranging grasp; the script (which Silverstein co-wrote with Johnny McAllister) addresses such sobering topics as race relations and the opioid crisis.
The movie’s split focus between Krystal and Abe also diminishes its impact — primarily because Morgan is such a compelling presence. Yet Bull ultimately makes up for it, first by exploring the characters’ isolation, then by bringing them together.