Sunday Girl (2019)

Sunday Girl (2019)

Sunday Girl opens with its lead character, Natasha (played with disarming charm by Dasha Nekrasova), casually snapping an image of an off-camera man with her iPhone, then heading down the street to her old-school Volkswagon Bug, which she pulls up a few feet to stop in front of suburban home. There, she breaks up with the first of what turns out to be four different boyfriends, all of whom have different reactions (and feelings) about their relationships with Natasha. Natasha, however, is doing her best to commit to a fifth guy, George (Brandon Stacy), with whom she’s had an on-again/off-again relationship for some months. The opening shot is actually Natasha doing her job – she’s a photographer working on a project involving images of people crying – and over the course of the Sunday (we assume), she begins to question the core of how she lives her life.

Sunday Girl could come off as an unbearably twee entry into mumblecore, complete with an idiosyncratic wardrobe, nostalgic callbacks, Wes Anderson-style shots, and a set of increasingly obnoxious, talky boyfriends with whom Natasha splits. But somehow the film works, due largely to the gradual revelations about Natasha’s character, her desires, and her attempts to do the right thing. At first, Natasha appears to be your typical cinematic representation of a detached Millennial, passing through life on her phone, halfheartedly engaging with the real people around her. But her increasing desperation and attempts to fix a problem that she created turns the film into more of a journey of the heart, as she tries to enforce her own sense of self-worth and self-control over relationships that she seems to have accidentally fallen into. The men themselves run the gamut of navel-gazing, self-serious poets, to corporate lawyers, but it’s less about whether they’re too good or not good enough for Natasha, and more about her need to detach herself from them in order to move on with her life.

The film’s anchor point is Dasha Nekrasova, a podcaster whose bonafides are increasingly in question (beyond Red Scare, a left-wing yet nihilist podcast, her major claim to fame is appearing on Last Week Tonight, and showing up in an episode of Mr. Robot); better, though, is that she’s an actress who does have some screen presence and is likely to gain more as time goes on. She’s a strong but uncomfortable presence in Sunday Girl, and focalizes the confusion of tone that the film, especially in its third act, falls into. This is certainly not a feminist march toward freedom from (stupid) men, but it’s also not explicitly anti-feminist. Natasha comes off as a confused but basically decent woman trying to figure out what she wants, and knowing pretty well what she doesn’t. She’s looking for a solution to the direction of her life in her relationships, but neither the film nor Nekrasova’s performance provides a sense that she’s able to be “fixed” by the right one. Rather, she’s stumbling through, attempting to do the right thing without really knowing how.

Writer/director Peter Ambrosio doesn’t attempt to do too much with his story, which is probably why Sunday Girl doesn’t come off as an attempt to transmogrify mumblecore. The point is the character and her trials, even if there are occasional flourishes with a fancy red coat or the ubiquitous presence of an adolescent girl whom Natasha cautions against cigarettes, ice cream, and falling in love. While the early parts of the film dwell too long on the men holding forth about their relationships with Natasha, the film picks up when she reveals her problem to her roommate, Kim (Ashton Leigh), who gives her some inept but well-meaning advice.

Sunday Girl’s final act unfortunately undoes some of the good will of its first two, constructing a semi-nihilist conclusion for Natasha without providing much solution to her conundrum – or even finding any satisfactory conclusion in the lack of a solution. But it’s a film that works fairly well until then, developing a thin narrative into something potentially profound. For a slight film that comes in at barely eighty minutes, Sunday Girl has some fine qualities that makes it more than a diverting indie exercise.

Sunday Girl is in limited release in New York and Los Angeles starting November 8.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Jojo Rabbit has been called many things – an anti-hate satire, as the poster and trailers proclaim; a descendant of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator; a misstep of catastrophic proportions comparable to Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried. (The latter is quite a trick, given that the vast majority of the world has never seen that film.) Making a film that comedically deals with Germany nearing the end of World War II, that addresses Nazism, fascism, anti-Semitism, and the toll of hatred, is always an uphill battle. But Jojo Rabbit proves to be perhaps one of the most essential political films of the past five years, cutting through a complexity of issues with humor and pathos. It’s film that demands common humanity without excusing or arguing for “understanding” fascists. The Nazis are the undoubted villains of the film, even as they are also its center.

Jojo Rabbit tells the story of Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a ten-year-old boy in Germany nearing the end of World War II. Jojo spends his days with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), his friend Yorki (Archie Yates), and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Jojo’s also a member of the Hitler Youth and an apparently passionate fascist, a fact challenged first by his mother and then by his discovery of Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie), a Jewish girl (and friend of his missing sister, Inge), whom Rosie has been concealing in their house. As Jojo grapplies with the humanity of the object of his hate, he begins to wonder if Hitler really is such a great guy.

Jojo Rabbit threads a fine needle between satire and reality. It demands sympathy with, superficially, the least sympathetic of people, but by telling the story largely through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy, it lays bare the difference between true fanaticism and fanaticism created by circumstance and culture. The “imaginary Adolf” character begins as a cartoonish friend – Jojo sees him as an exuberant, silly pal who encourages Jojo to go out there and be himself, even when he fails at being a “good Nazi” by not being able to kill a rabbit. As the film proceeds and Jojo comes face to face with the starker reality of Nazism, Adolf shifts from an encouraging cheerleader to downright terrifying. Hitler is an imaginary figure who represents Jojo’s need for acceptance and encouragement, a celebrity icon who provides comfort in much the same way that children can imagine they’re friends with Batman or The Beatles. The conflict that develops between Jojo and his imaginary friend acts as an externalization of the ideological conflict within Jojo as he comes to see the difference between the cult of Nazism and the reality of it.

This elucidation of mythology and children’s games is at the base of Jojo Rabbit, revealing the cult of personality that surrounded Hitler—and, by extension, all fanatical political and cultural movements—how it was formed, and how it conflicts with reality. His mother attempts to keep him human, reminding him of his father’s true personality, instilling in him an understanding of love and humanity, even as he parrots Nazi propaganda and claims that metal and muscles are stronger than love. Later, Elsa tells Jojo, “You’re not a Nazi. You’re a ten-year-old boy who wants to be part of a club.” But this does not excuse Jojo’s passive acceptance of the tenets of Nazism. Just because he is comparatively innocent and led astray by adults does not mean that he’s not culpable. It’s through his discovery of common humanity, and the reality of the situations of his family, friends, and country that he’s able to put aside the costumes and trappings of fanaticism and seek forgiveness.

It should be noted that the “Hitler” of Jojo Rabbit is not the real Hitler, but a made-up version that acts as the friend and father surrogate of a little boy, a projection of what he sees and hears and imagines the “hero of the nation” to be. The real Hitler appears only once, in archive footage during the opening sequence, as an icon gazed upon by adoring fans. Waititi imposes The Beatles singing “Komme Gib Mir Deine Hand,” the German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (yes, that is actually The Beatles) over images of Hitler’s rallies and Nazi salutes. This identification of Hitler’s “fandom” is far deeper than it might appear – Jojo fully indulges in his love of Nazi iconography, putting up posters of Hitler on his wall and fantasizing about being best friends with his idol. The promotion of “Hitler as heartthrob” was encouraged in Germany, a fact which the film exploits as it explores the concept of fascism as fandom, and the way in which Nazism enticed boys and girls to participate in its cruelty by framing it in terms of desire and adulthood.

The film further develops the cult not just of Hitler himself, but of the complicated mythology of Germany that the Nazis relied on for promulgating propaganda and their worldview, including the cult of death in which young men and women were trained to die for distant figures. Joj Rabbit focuses on the fetishization of violence, death, and weaponry—Jojo receives a knife at the beginning of the film, told that it is his friend. He imagines the violence he would do to a Jew if he ever caught one, and seeks to prove his bravery by stupidly seizing an active grenade. Yorki is conscripted as a soldier, despite being a child, and the images of child soldiers carrying massive weapons and firing guns walks the lines of humor, surrealism, and terrifying reality.

None of this would be possible without the deft hand of Waititi himself, as writer, director, and in the role of Imaginary Hitler, whom he plays as a cartoonish buffoon and terrifying bully. The imagery of a Polynesian Jewish man playing Hitler is, in itself, a transgression, but Waititi and his actors go beyond broad satire. The children are all uniformly excellent, a requirement for a film told through their eyes. Roman Griffin Davis carries the movie on his slight shoulders, portraying the central character with humor, nuance, and intelligence. Scarlett Johansson is likewise fantastic as Jojo’s mother, a good woman navigating a bad world, attempting to protect her son and do the right thing, as far as she is able.

Jojo Rabbit is about minor resistance, about a war being fought not just on the front lines but ideologically, in homes and cities. Rosie’s act of maintaining her son’s humanity and showing him what love is, is more transgressive and daring than anything done in violence. The film has been criticized for treating Nazis as human beings rather than monsters, much in the same way that Chaplin urged the common humanity of all people in The Great Dictator. But recognizing Nazis as human beings does not equate to saying that they’re misunderstood; rather, it says that their very monstrosity is a human monstrosity, a crime of human beings against each other, that all were culpable for their nation’s crimes, and all had a choice. What is more, it argues that we all have a choice, like Jojo, to remain human. We can reject hate and embrace love, and let the rabbit go.

 

The Riot Act (2019)

The Riot Act (2019)

The Riot Act opens, auspiciously, with an opera and a murder. Dr. Willard Pearrow (Brett Cullen), a powerful doctor/opera house owner living in a small Southern town sometime around the turn of the century, murders an opera star who has taken up with his daughter, Allye (Lauren Sweetser). Allye’s a witness to the crime and flees, leaving her father to clean up his reputation. Two years later, the nearly defunct opera house gets a new lease on life with the arrival of a travelling vaudeville act, thanks to efforts of the local blacksmith/stage manager August (Connor Price). Dr. Pearrow is skeptical of the act but willing to take the risk, even if the opera house is menaced by a supernatural phantom in a mask who follows him around. Of course, Allye makes up one of the members of the troupe, hell-bent on taking revenge for the murder of her lover.

The Riot Act is attempting quite a lot, and in places, it succeeds. The “phantom” figure is a simple but freaky image and, when used effectively, as in one haunting sequence, quite a terrifying one as well. Conceptually, the film takes on elements of class, gender, and power structures that are tacitly under threat in a post-Civil War, slowly electrifying South. The division between the classes is at times viciously enforced, even if the narrative does somewhat skirt over elements of racism that it introduces and then abandons.

But The Riot Act unfortunately doesn’t work as well as its concept or structure would suggest. The idea is sound – a murderous oligarch of a small town faces the wages of his sins via his wronged daughter and, possibly, a supernatural force. But the narrative telegraphs its message pretty early on and abandons the possibilities of the wandering vaudevillian troupe that sweep into town like the circus of Something Wicked This Way Comes. The narrative isn’t quite certain of itself, sometimes tending toward a supernatural thriller a la Phantom of the Opera, sometimes a tale of vengeance and the sins of the father. Either could work, and even work in tandem, but the disparate elements don’t quite come together here.

Some of this is due to the limited budget that renders the small Southern town a little lacking in scene-setting. Lack of establishing shots and a fundamental failure to create consistent atmosphere means that it’s hard for the audience to ground themselves in the world. Where are we? What’s the location? What, for that matter, is the time period? While some obscurity can be welcome in films like this, there’s little concrete to hold onto, as though we’re meant to infer the period and setting through the few elements of dress and dialogue that serve to establish it.

The performances are generally strong, especially Sweetser as Allye, whose deep-seated desire to punish her father for his crime means that she often acts her own best interests and selfishly sacrifices her other relationships for the chance of vengeance. Cullen’s Dr. Pearrow is an unlikable character with edges of sympathy—he legitimately misses his daughter and mourns for her loss, even as he refuses to interrogate his personal failings and the class privilege that made him into a murderer. The film’s strongest thematic underpinnings come from this element of class and violence—Pearrow acts violently because he can be assured that he will not be punished for something so banal as murdering an opera singer or giving bad medical advice to a blacksmith. He hardly even rates those he hurts as people to be considered, and as such he makes an effective, pathetic monster. The most frightening and well-done moments occur in the final act, as motivations for different characters is laid bare and Pearrow finds himself face to face with his demons.

The Riot Act is an intriguing experiment, and might have been a successful one, perhaps with another editing pass. As it stands, it’s a film in which you can easily spot the seams, holes, and patch jobs. While far from perfect, it deserves some attention at least for Sweetser and writer/director Devon Parks, who does much with little and constructs an interesting, sometimes assured narrative. Not an award-winner, but hardly a failure either.

The Riot Act will be on VOD this October.

Ophelia (2019)

Ophelia takes the initial concept of retelling Hamlet from the perspective of its most victimized (and, arguably, most tragic) character, giving her voice and agency and even some command over the plot and tries to morph Hamlet into a tale of a strong-willed young woman determined to find her way. Daisy Ridley is the title character, a girl in the Danish court who acts as lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Despised by the other ladies-in-waiting due to her “low” birth, Ophelia spends most of her time alone or longing for the education in which her brother, Laertes (Tom Felton), indulges. But as we know, things are rotten in the state of Denmark. The king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, in an unfortunate wig), wants power for himself and the young prince Hamlet (George McKay) wants Ophelia.

Ophelia has so much potential that it’s a shame it wastes it. Any attempt at psychological depth is abandoned for a teenage melodrama—Hamlet is a doe-eyed boy who falls madly in love with Ophelia practically the moment he sees her again. While the story does follow the basic arc of the play, there’s no screen time spent developing motivation for anyone except the villains—Claudius wants to be king, of course, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want to . . . rape people? There’s some attempt made to develop the relationship between Ophelia and Gertrude and it’s here that Ophelia presents some of its best arguments in depicting two women at the mercy of powerful men, attempting to negotiate that in their own way.

But for a film based on psychologically complex play, there’s a remarkable degree of superficiality here. It presents Hamlet’s drive to take vengeance for his father’s murder as his “duty,” but in the absence of complex characterization, it feels more like he’s going through the motions because that’s what happens. A confusing subplot involving Gertrude’s drug addiction, Claudius’s past liaisons, and a witch in the woods tries to bring in plot points from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and even, for some reason, Twelfth Night, still without attempting any depth characterization or, at this point, plot sense. Most maddening is that Shakespeare provides template for psychological depth, and yet Ophelia manages to render every character so superficially as to be, in places, laughable.

Ophelia also sets certain major scenes off-screen, because Ophelia (in the play) doesn’t witness them. Thus viewers are told of Hamlet’s madness and Polonius’s murder (the formative moments for Ophelia’s arc) rather than seeing them in action. The argument can’t be made that because the plot is focalized through Ophelia, the film cannot show things she does not see, for there are scenes to which Ophelia is not privy—just not the interesting ones.

If the comparisons to Shakespeare seem unfair, it’s worthwhile to point out that the film makes them as well. Ophelia takes away the language—which is understandable—but then renders Shakespearean speeches in “plain” English, resulting in Polonius telling his son to “never lend anyone money” and Hamlet shouting “go to a nunnery!”, as though the script were based on the No Fear Shakespeare version. This does a disservice to the actors, especially Ridley and Watts, who attempt to find nuance in their roles where the script gives them little.

Ophelia’s tragedy is her manipulation by a patriarchal and hierarchal structure that treats her as something to be traded—in the play, Hamlet violently repudiates her after she’s set up as bait to draw him out. Within short order, the man she loves rejects her and then murders her father, a double blow that ends with her madness. Yet these events are rendered entirely moot, and instead Ophelia’s character becomes a cipher apparently untouched by what happens around her. Hamlet is far more important than the beloved father or absent brother, and their romance makes her switch her allegiance to the point that she does not struggle with the fact that he’s murdered her father, even by accident. He’s just totally cute and that’s enough for her.

At best, director Claire McCarthy renders some lovely images as complex as Renaissance paintings, and these depictions of romantic abandon are among Ophelia’s most powerful moments. The film would’ve been better served by fully indulging in these romantic fantasy aspects. If it had been more melodramatic, wilder and romantic, it might have overcome the inherent silliness of the script to create something gorgeous, passionate, and over-the-top.

But, as a friend of mine commented, Ophelia is a fanfiction version of Hamlet, complete with plucky heroine, dastardly villains, and brooding love interest. There’s nothing wrong with romance, but the film wants too much to be taken seriously, unable to reconcile itself with its own extremity. Most problematic is its tendency to elevate Ophelia without making her more complex, as though she’s only worked on externally and has no inner life. By refuting her victimization by the world she cannot control, Ophelia actually abandons the depth of its lead’s psychology and tragedy, and removes itself from even an attempt to comment on patriarchy. Hamlet is just a bad boy that any teenage girl would love. Well, Ophelia always deserved better than Hamlet. She still does.

Ophelia comes to cinemas June 28 and VOD July 2.

Holy Lands (2019)

Holy Lands (2019)

Holy Lands is an odd, occasionally successful film about the dialogue between family, friendships, and faith. Taking place simultaneously in Nazareth and New York, the film traverses countries and faiths to try to find the heart of what unites a family. Harry Rosemerck (James Caan) is a lapsed Jew who moves to Nazareth to start a pig farm, largely as an act of defiance against Judaism itself. He particularly enrages Moshe (Tom Hollander), a local rabbi, with whom he develops a conflict-laden relationship. Harry is estranged from his son, David (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a successful New York playwright, with whom he can only communicate via letter. His daughter, Annabelle (Efrat Dor), is a photographer who can barely support herself, migrating between Israel and New York to see both her parents. Meanwhile, Harry’s ex-wife, Monica (Rosanna Arquette), finds herself at a crossroads when she’s diagnosed with terminal cancer. The film tries to combine these disparate familial narratives, each of them shaped and influencing the other, as it interrogates the meanings behind faith, love for family, and the development of some unlikely friendships.

When Holy Lands succeeds, it’s a moving, humorous film; when it fails, it’s difficult to follow or to invest in. The result is a curious, imbalanced narrative that would have been better for one or two fewer plot strands. Yet each of the strands also feels essential to an understanding of the others, and it would be hard to claim that you could lose any character or actor and maintain the same meaning. Most entertaining is the contentious and charming relationship between Caan’s irascible Harry and Hollander’s equally immovable Moshe. As the pair circle each other and spar over matters of practicality and faith, Holy Lands finds its most comfortable footing. There’s a sense that director Amanda Sthers knows that this is the story to be told, and that the others, as interesting as they are in places, are really ancillary to it.

However, Rosanna Arquette’s equally intense performance should not be lost. As Monica comes to accept her approaching death and attempts to reconnect with both her children, who love her but also find her difficult to handle, Arquette gives one of her finest, most nuanced performances. She’s multitudinous and sympathetic but also impossible, and her adoration of her family and equal inability to connect to them bears the soul of Holy Lands. But her narrative feels too independent in itself, and Holy Lands isn’t quite able to integrate her story with that of her children or her ex-husband.

Amanda Sthers writes and directs from her own novel, which explains Holy Lands’ sense of the personal combined with its undoubted messiness. The film is in need of restructuring and development, with an eye to creating a more stable narrative that allows for rising and falling action. An hour and forty minutes simply does not have the fluidity that a three hundred page novel does, and the result is an imbalanced work that never quite hits the right notes. Sthers appears to want to tell a story about generational conflict and separation, but also about the interaction between faith and culture, but also about a Jewish man trying to raise and sell pigs in Israel. The result is that none of the stories receive the attention that they warrant, even though buried within each are some fantastic characters and emotional beats.

Holy Lands is not a bad film by any stretch, and at times it even aspires to greatness. But it misses its mark too often and loses coherency in attempting to move between the stories, integrate them together, and succeed in doing justice to all the characters. The film just doesn’t quite work, yet it is also an admirable attempt, and reveals a director and writer that bears watching.

Holy Lands officially releases on June 21.

Ghost Light (2019)

Ghost Light (2019)

There’s a cliché that Shakespeare is the most adapted playwright in the world and, like many clichés, it’s probably true. His work has been transposed in multiple languages and across multiple platforms, inspiring new interpretations on stage, in art, in print, and on the screen. He’s also a remarkably meta-narrational playwright: his plays invite commentary on theater as theater (or cinema), integrating plays within plays, actors playing multiple roles (and referencing the roles they’re playing), and self-referentiality. Ghost Light, from director John Stimpson, plays further with Shakespearean meta, as he brings in traditions and superstitions to interact with the story of an acting troupe putting on the most ill-fated of the Bard’s plays.

Ghost Light utilizes the curse surrounding performances of Macbeth – excuse me, The Scottish Play – as a Shakespearean troupe arrive to perform the play in a charming Massachusetts village and find themselves in the midst of ghostly, horrific happenings. The troupe is complete with character types: a former soap actor and all-around ham leading man Alex (Cary Elwes, having the time of his life), his wife and Lady Macbeth Liz (Shannyn Sossamon), Thomas (Tom Riley) a jealous second-lead/understudy playing Banquo, the long-suffering director Henry (Roger Bart), and a deliriously extreme fading dame of the theater Madeline (Carol Kane). Thomas and Liz tempt fate and the theater gods when they invoke the play’s curse by shouting “Macbeth!” in the empty theater. With some very Shakespearean theatrics from nature, the curse begins to take hold and transform the relationships of the members of the troupe into the play itself.

Ghost Light takes a little while to find its feet, summoning a sense of menace from the start but with little initial payoff. The characters are certainly types—they’re meant to be, especially as they begin to morph into their own versions of their Shakespearean roles. The film draws together elements of theatrical traditions and superstitions, and not just surrounding Macbeth: the presence of the stage’s “ghost light,” the use of the phrase “break a leg” rather than “good luck,” the various contortions that one has to go through to break the curse of the Scottish Play. Ghost Light occasionally veers too far into the silliness of its premise and undercuts the elements of menace that both the play and its own plot conjure. At the same time, the film does pay off its premise, and the final act is a fantastically entertaining, horror-laden farce that brings all the elements of the narrative together.

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most humorless tragedies, so it’s interesting that it has also been the one most often adapted into a black comedy. Ghost Light shares the stage with Scotland, PA, another story about Macbeth in the North American countryside. But where Scotland, PA adapted the story, Ghost Light adds another layer, making the superstitions that surround Macbeth are as important as the play itself. This means that the characters are fully aware they’re beginning to embody their parts—there are lines in which characters acknowledge that they’re acting like their on-stage roles and seem incapable of breaking out of the cycle. As a result, though, some of the minor parts unfortunately get left by the side in favor of the central narrative of Tom and Liz. But all the actors are game for their roles, enjoying the Shakespeare, both good and bad, that they get to perform.

The film does occasionally slip into the hokey and predictable, particularly at the beginning and before the final act transition to the night of the performance. Luckily, the final show is so enjoyable that it’s easy to forget some of the hokeyness and simply indulge in the slightly blood and very clever fun. After all, Shakespeare himself wasn’t above some amateur theatrics.

Ghost Light will drop on VOD on June 18.

Bull (2019)

Bull (2019)

Despite calls for gender equity across the board, the Cannes Film Festival has once again largely failed to address the disparity between the number of male and female directors with films appearing both in competition and out. But there are a few, thankfully, and one of them is Annie Silverstein’s feature film debut Bull, appearing in the Un Certain Regard section. The film chronicles the friendship between a troubled adolescent girl and her bull-riding next door neighbor.

Bull opens with Kris (Amber Havard), a teenager in a rundown Houston subdivision. Living with her grandmother while her mother serves time, Kris spends her days playing with her younger sister and trying to fit in with other kids. This leads her to break into her neighbor Abe’s (Rob Morgan) house one night, while Abe is off working the rodeo. Kris and her friends trash the place, releasing Abe’s chickens, drinking his booze, and consuming his painkillers. The next morning, Abe catches Kris sleeping on his backyard sofa. Rather than having her arrested and sent to juvie, Abe agrees to let Kris try to make amends by cleaning his house and repairing the chicken coop. The two soon develop an uneasy, contentious friendship as Abe introduces Kris to bull-riding and a small community of African American riders, providing her with an outlet for her undirected fury and a chance to break free of the world that confines her.

Bull has a great deal in common with The Rider, which interrogated the existential masculinity of rodeo riders, and The Wrestler, which focused on the ambivalent masculine experience of hurting oneself in pursuit of a profession. Bull takes place within a liminal community and deftly handles the numbness of poverty without making it either overly sentimental or overly violent The film filters itself through the communal experiences of a teenage white girl and an African American man.. Kris has all of the usual experiences of anger and listlessness that come with being an adolescent, but those are further developed through her poverty and her culture. Abe’s job is to distract the bulls following a bucking, and he’s injured on a regular basis, stomped, knocked over, and even gored. In his spare time, he teaches young men how to bull-ride, effectively training another generation of men like him. Both he and Kris find a kind of a solace in bull-riding, and in each other, as they deal with the unnamed and undirected anger that swirls around them.

This is, of course, a film about taciturn, apparently emotionless characters who find a kinship – if not quite love – with one another. Kris makes all the mistakes of being teenager but as she becomes more involved with “bad” kids and drug dealers, the danger of her position is apparent. She has no one to look after her or to guide her except for Abe, himself an aging bull-rider who can no longer get out of the way fast enough to be useful in the ring. The bull of the title is both the raison d’etre of the pair and a (somewhat muted) metaphor for their own behavior. As Abe describes to Kris how to stop a bull in his tracks, the combination of exhilaration and danger that inherent in a sport like bull-riding emphasizes the fundamental lack of emotion, or joy, in both their lives. Bull does an excellent job of showing just how such a dangerous, damaging sport can be so attractive to a particular type of person, and what things like it offer to those who have little other way out of their respective poverty.

Bull’s weakness is really in the recognizable nature of its narrative, but Silverstein evades turning the story into a cliché or a repetition of earlier films that delve into the lives of impoverished people in the South and West. It sets itself apart in the strength of its characterizations, done remarkably with minimal dialogue or discussion even between its main characters. Havard is a fascinating young actress making her debut here, with a haunted way of looking and speaking that indicates depth protected by a barrier to avoid pain. Rob Morgan, who appeared recently in Dee Rees’s Mudbound, matches her without overwhelming her as a man compelled to ride even as it endangers his life.

Bull has the potential to be this year’s The Rider, but it does it a disservice to simply compare the two films. Far from being a carbon copy, it is another multifaceted cinematic examination of characters that are often pushed to the peripheries or treated with pity. It’s a fantastic narrative feature debut for Silverstein, and more than worthy of Un Certain Regard.