Annie Silverstein’s Bull is underwhelming in the way that many debut features are; it features the occasional flash of originality and unique idea, but it is mostly content to coast on handed-down archetypes and stylistic flourishes. The film centres on Kris (newcomer Amber Harvard), a rough-and-tumble tomboy living in an impoverished area in rural Texas. Despite her cocky demeanour and take-no-prisoners wit, Kris is tormented by a dysfunctional home-life. Her father is absent, and her mother has just been committed to a state penitentiary, leaving Kris in the custody of her distant grandmother. Without any substantial parental guidance, it’s up to Kris to support her cherubic, younger sister. The opening stretch of Bull thus oscillates between snapshots of Kris as a wayward, turbulent youth, and a doting, respectable maternal figure, creating a clear-cut schism between the life of righteousness and the life of disreputable squalor — both of which potentially lay ahead of her.
In a particularly heinous act of rebellion, Kris encourages a group of neighbourhood ne’er-do-wells to break into the house of her elderly neighbour, Abe (Rob Morgan), and rob his liquor cabinet. Upon finding the damage that Kris has left in her wake the next morning, Abe kindly agrees to wave pressing legal charges on the condition that Kris spend the summer doing odd jobs on his ranch. Abe, we discover, is a formerly successful bull rider who is too damned impassioned by his love of the sport to give into his peers’ requests that he retire. Kris rejects the idea of wasting her free time in the company of old men, begging to be given jail time instead, but — as Abe and the audience both know — a bit of hard labour is just the thing she needs to set her on the right path.
As expected, Kris and Abe butt heads at first, with the generational split being the fuel for some forced comedy and retrograde social observations. Inevitably, the more time they spend together, the more they are able to put their differences aside and form an unlikely friendship. Kris realizes that Abe isn’t the stoic, grouchy hermit that he first appeared to be, and is instead a complicated, flawed human being dealing with his own issues; they bond over shared feelings of social exclusion, numbing addictions (Abe’s alcoholism and prescription pill dependency is framed as a self-destructive way to escape from the boredom and frustrations of his everyday life, just as Kris’ acts of petty delinquency are), and barely-repressed rage.
If all of that sounds very schematic, that’s because it’s a plot trajectory that has been recycled countless times within the coming-of-age genre, and the arc of both characters is telegraphed from the very first moment they meet. This lack of imagination extends to the film’s form, which neatly fits the mold of close-up-driven, rough handheld naturalism that has become a tired cliché in American indie cinema. And Bull suffers from a problem that plagues all films of this type: the visual scheme is designed to approximate a sense of you-are-there immediacy, yet it subsumes its images to traditional, three-act melodramatic structures straight from the Syd Field screenwriting manual. Seeing characters interact in real locations with documentary subjects loses its effectiveness when we understand that the scene has been placed there to set up the next plot twist or emotional climax.
Silverstein has already enjoyed an esteemed career as a director of shorts (her 2014 film Skunk won the Jury award at the Cannes film festival in 2014), and there are certainly sequences in which her eye for texture, camera movement, and the miniature of facial gestures shine through — the bullfighting scenes, in particular, are realized well, capturing the mixture of fear and exuberating experienced by both the riders and the crowd in the stadium with an incredible visceral force. Expressing this powerful mix of emotions is crucial, because the sport serves as the linchpin for both of the characters’ emotional journeys; Kris is so attracted to the rodeo that it inspires her to embrace the straight-and-narrow, while Abe remains so dedicated to his craft that he is willing to risk his physical health in order to pursue it at his advanced age.
That Silverstein delivers on this front imbues the overly conventional plot with a sense of pathos that would normally elude a film of this type, and it becomes clear why she is such a celebrated talent on the festival circuit. Fingers crossed that Silverstein will build on the more intriguing aspects of her style in the future, and Bull will soon be remembered as an unfortunate stepping stone towards something greater.