Bull

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Bull
"Havard's sullen features and emotional distance set the tone for the film so that even the tiniest spark of excitement has real power." | Photo: Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

Kris (Amber Havard) is a 14-year-old who looks younger but has to deal with pressures beyond her years. Life has never been easy for her. Her mother (Sara Albright) is in prison, her grandmother (Keeli Wheeler) is in poor health and she increasingly finds herself the primary carer for her little sister (Keira Bennett). She isn't coping well. At school she gets in fights; elsewhere, she's too eager to impress, wanting to fit in with a more fashionable crowd or to get the attention of boys who barely notice she's there. one night she breaks into her neighbour's home, thinking he'll be away for a while, so that she can cultivate some popularity there. When her neighbour finds her his initial plan is to call the police, but her grandmother talks him into letting Kris do some work for him instead - a process that might give her a better understanding of how the world works.

This is Abe (Rob Morgan), a former professional bull rider whose accumulated injuries mean that he now works primarily as a wrangler, travelling to shows. He's understandably distrustful of Kris to begin with, and she gives him reason to retain his caution, if only because she doesn't place much value on herself. Her small size and innocent (albeit bruised) looks make her an appealing prospect for local gangsters who can use her to push pills, and who imply that they're also considering pimping her out. She wants to bring in money and doesn't much care if she ends up getting jailed. But a trip to a rodeo with Abe gives her a glimpse into another world. The thrill of watching the riders (brilliantly captured by Annie Silverstein's camera) opens her eyes to new possibilities and shows her that there are things in life beyond mere survival.

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Havard's sullen features and emotional distance set the tone for the film so that even the tiniest spark of excitement has real power. This isn't a glossy happy-ever-after story but one that persists in taking a realistic approach to the damage done by growing up as part of the US underclass; by maintaining an understated approach, Silverstein is able to create something less obvious but much more meaningful. She trusts her actors to deliver and they do. Both main characters have been bruised by life in different ways (the casual way in which racism is woven into the stories emphasises its ubiquity and hints at its impact on Abe), and whilst they don't seem likely to save one another, they create the possibility of hope. Each seems to recognise that, awkward and messy as their connection is, it's something worth investing it.

In the wider world, rodeo is controversial, and some viewers will feel uncomfortable with the evident distress caused to real animals in the course of this film. The absence of judgement from any of its characters seems to reflect a world in which some measure of cruelty is taken for granted. indeed, Kris is intrigued by Abe's injuries just as she is by the prospect of riding a bull herself. this isn't so much about dreams of stardom or even developing skill so much as it is about being able to feel something other than that familiar dull ache.

With well judged supporting performances all round, this is a potent little tale about making the most of good things in life wherever one finds them. It could do with being tightened up a bit but by and large it hits home, and its modest approach means it remains relevant throughout, simmering with a quiet anger that doesn't need to reach boiling point to make itself known.

Reviewed on: 15 Mar 2020
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In a near-abandoned subdivision west of Houston, a wayward teen runs headlong into her equally wilful and unforgiving neighbour, an ageing bullfighter who’s seen his best days in the arena; it’s a collision that will change them both.

Director: Annie Silverstein

Writer: Annie Silverstein, Johnny McAllister, Josh Melrod

Starring: Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolonda Ross, Keira Bennett, Karla Garbelotto, Troy Anthony Hogan, Peggy Schott, Lee Stringer, Keeli Wheeler, James Schuler, Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolonda Ross, Keira Bennett, Karla Garbelotto

Year: 2019

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Cannes 2019

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