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.