First time feature director Annie Silverstein new film Bull, will leave you with thoughts you can’t process right away. Silverstein co-wrote the script with Johnny McAllister with the aim to converge two worlds under a common goal, but the plot handles heavy-handed subject matter in a flimsy way that doesn’t seem organic. While the direction is well focused and captures the aesthetic feel of the cultures it wants to explore, however, the writer’s good intentions aren’t enough to save this indie film from imploding.
When we first see Kris (Amber Havard), she wakes to prepare for her weekly visit to see her Mom (Sara Albright) in prison. It’s unclear why she’s locked up, but we do get the sense she’s a bit of a rolling stone. Kris is on the same path as the poverty stricken 14-year-old from small town Texas enjoys fighting, drinking, popping pills, and everything else in the delinquent handbook. She behaves this way because she lives without fear of consequence since her grandmother and guardian (Keeli Wheeler), can’t control her.
Her neighbor and former bull rider Abe (Rob Morgan), is out working and trying not to die in the PBR rodeo show bull distractor (someone who makes sure the riders don’t get killed). He spends his days alone, tending to his backyard chicken coop and nurturing them like human children. His financial woes and injuries keep piling up and before long he won’t be able to walk if he keeps this up.
Their lives collide when Kris breaks into Abe’s house and wrecks it while he’s working out of town during the weekend. He finds out she’s responsible because she was bold enough to fall asleep in his backyard instead of leaving. Abe doesn’t press charges, but opts for her to clean the mess and run errands for him until he feels she’s paid her penance. As she continues to work for Abe, their mutual love of bull riding becomes apparent and Kris begins to wonder if the rodeo is her way out of poverty. Abe begins to train her but external vices and financial need get in the way. So with her newfound access to Black cowboy culture her intensions become insidious when she gets the idea to start selling drugs there. Although her conscience pushes against this, she has to choose— build a life as a bull rider, or end up in prison like her mother.
The idea of an aging Black rodeo star, and an angst pill pushing teenager are fascinating as separate ideas–but together–the script makes them appear imbalanced as Abe’s life is more engaging to watch than Kris. His body may ache, but his commitment to the culture inspires him to teach others what he knows. He doesn’t see a life outside the rodeo, and if he loses anything else, he is stuck. So why does he have to share a narrative with Kris when her story doesn’t have the same impact? Yes, she’s a defiant mess on the road to nowhere–something movie-goers have seen a thousand times. The only difference with this character is it’s never allowed to blossom because the third act is rushed without a teacher-student relationship fully materializing.
Regardless of plot flaws, the cinematography and competent direction give the red dirt and the haze in the western air a whimsical surrealism that allows the audience to get swept up in the rodeo action. Silverstein’s style is distinct because she utilizes tight medium close ups that enhance the stress on the actors faces. She does have a promising career in the field, but at this stage, her direction would benefit a story that’s more straight forward. The Bull script just isn’t structured enough to juggle every topic it introduces.