What cuts the deepest emotionally in Annie Silverstein’s new indie narrative, Bull, is the power of found family. The film centers on struggling 14-year-old Kris (newcomer Amber Havard) who has little to emulate in her own family, as her mother, doing time in the state penitentiary, offers parental advice like punching aggressive schoolmates to show who’s boss.
In Amber’s impovrished Houston neighborhood, she has little to motivate and drive her beyond getting the approval of delinquent kids looking to drink and drug. To gain their attention, she offers a late-night break-in and booze fest in her neighbor Abe Turner’s house. Abe (Rob Morgan), an ex-bullrider is trying to get by working the rodeo circuit as as a rodeo protection athlete, or ‘bullfighter’, and doing odd jobs around town. When he catches Kris running from his trash-strewn house, a pact is made with the cops and Kris’s grandmother for Kris to work off what she owes him, both financially and morally.
They are both challenged by the basic perception of society: Kris is a poor girl without resources being courted by the local Oxi dealer and potential pimp, and Abe is a Black man living in Texas and working in the rodeo circuit, a business that is largely still segregated. Their often-rocky friendship is forged through mutual frustration and a desire to have a life that isn’t just going from one soul-crushing, dehumanizing experience to another.
Actor Rob Morgan has never met a role he couldn’t nuance. He could utter only a few words in the entire film and still speak volumes through is emotive, subtle facial expressions. As Abe, he carries a weary self-assurance and the bone-deep wisdom of a survivor, and it’s heartbreaking. He finds it in his heart to give Kris not only repeated chances to right her wrongs, but mentors her in her new passion of bull riding. They become family to each other, and he helps build her self-esteem and heal the damage her blood family continues to inflict on her.
Co-writer and director Silverstein was inspired to write the story through her personal history. She was doing social work before she went to film school, and worked with teens from rural and underrepresented communities, many of whom have incarcerated parents. When she moved to Texas for a film school graduate program, she met a man from a Black rodeo family. She knew nothing about the storied history of Black cowboys, since it was largely left out of American history and depictions of the West in film.
There is always a simmering rage and despair below the surface for the characters that inhabit the world of Bull. We come to discover it’s better than the hopelessness that, for them, has a constant risk of taking permanent hold. Silverstein’s film is a meditation on the truism that forgiveness of yourself and of those who profess to love you is a daily practice, and one at which we fail as often as we succeed. Bull is sad, sweet, and beautiful.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars.