Cannes 2019 review: Bull (Annie Silverstein)

Unlikely pairings helping each other fix their lives is not an uncommon theme in film. Yet in Annie Silverstein’s debut feature Bull, the relationship between headstrong teenager Kris (Amber Havard) and aging rodeo rider Abe (Rob Morgan) feels so lived-in that it manages to elude clichés. A narrative eschewing the expected after setting up familiar beats, Bull paints an unexpected relationship without questioning, presenting it simply as two humans coming together to form a bond.

When they first meet, Kris and Abe certainly do not look set to form a bond whatsoever. Kris, living with her kid sister at her grandma’s since her mother was sent to prison, seems destined to follow in her mum’s footsteps. Aloof and somewhat socially awkward, she breaks into the house of her neighbor Abe, a bull rider in the autumn of his career, to throw an impromptu party with friends. When Abe returns home the next morning he catches a sleeping Kris redhanded, and they come to an arrangement: Kris will clean the house that she and her friends trashed, and do other chores around the house as well.

The two start hanging out together and Abe, fired from a top tier rodeo outfit after a grave injury, takes her to black rodeos and starts teaching the tomboyish Kris the ropes of bull riding. Kris finds in him a father figure she never had, and Abe finds in her someone to care for in his otherwise lonely life. Both frugal with words, they don’t express their affection easily and ostensibly keep each other at arm’s length, but get closer as Kris expresses a desire to ride a bull. It’s her path in life outside her relationship with Abe that is catching up with Kris, however, and a fateful incident late in the film threatens to break the fragile and uncommon friendship. But it is clear these two souls need each other, and it makes the film’s final shot all the more touching.

Silverstein, hailing from Texas herself, sets the story in a rural Houston area. Initially Bull was conceived as just Kris’s story, but when Silverstein discovered the existence of black rodeos she decided to dig deeper into that community and merge the two into one film. Both this world as well as Kris’s ‘white trash’ background are rarely found portrayed so honestly on film, and it’s to the director’s credit that she creates an organic connection between them. The rodeo footage is riveting and Morgan, impressively built, blends in naturally as if he has chased bucking bulls from the ring his whole life.

The performances in general resonate. Newcomer Havard is a true find, keeping the distant Kris internal for the most part, which makes the moments where her emotions do break through all the more powerful. Morgan is equally strong, as his character has to do quite a bit of emotional lifting as well, but since Abe tends to keep his feelings even closer to his chest than Kris, Morgan has to work with posture and stares. They are supported by a cast of naturalistic performances, with Sara Albright as Kris’s institutionalized mother a particular standout.

The general tone of Bull as well as the milieu it is set in will invite immediate comparisons to Chloe Zhao’s The Rider. Silverstein’s effort is a bit grittier and rougher around the edges, but both films do dig deep into some of America’s quintessential myths to find people of flesh and blood who live their lives without lofty goals. And that is the general feel of Bull, as it gently moves towards a conclusion without much incident, but with a lot of love and empathy for its characters which would stay out of focus in most other films.