2020, NR, 105 min. Directed by Annie Silverstein. Starring Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolonda Ross, Keeli Wheeler, Keira Bennett, Sara Allbright.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., April 17, 2020
This super-low-key drama set in a rural Texas coastal community languidly recounts the unlikely friendship between an aimless 14-year-old girl (Havard) and a much older neighbor (Morgan), a beaten-down rodeo rider barely eking out a living with the aid of ice packs and ibuprofen tablets. This odd pair resides in a downbeat American landscape of dead-end dreams, a place where empty beer cans clutter coffee tables, kids ride in the back of pick-up trucks, and prescription pill bottles dominate bedside tables.
There are few exit signs for anyone born to this way of American life, one that’s seldom depicted onscreen with such raw and unflinching clarity, movies like Boys Don’t Cry and Winter’s Bone being the rare exceptions. Like those films, Bull can be a deflating experience because the insular world in which the teenage Kris is growing up, and the aging Abe is slowing down is one seemingly drained of all hope. Despite a clumsy attempt to convey a modicum of optimism in a sorely underwritten ending, the movie is one big sigh of resignation.
With the exception of Morgan – who gives a credibly lived-in performance, one full of physical and other aches and pains – most of the remaining cast members are non-professional actors. Along with Shabier Kirchner’s unobtrusive cinematography, this choice significantly contributes toward the film’s authenticity. But in the case of Havard in the central role, it proves to be both an asset and a liability. This novice has a natural onscreen presence, but she’s too passive to fully dig into the part. Granted, this performance limitation is not entirely her own making. The details captured by first-time feature filmmaker Silverstein here are vividly real, down to the nighttime symphonies of chirping crickets and black charcoal kettle grills billowing smoke at outdoor barbecues. She’s done a terrific job in evoking a specific time and place. But her direction, whether intentional or not, keeps you at an arms-length, almost observational distance.
While admirably eschewing any God’s Little Acre-like sensationalism, the movie has little compelling dramatic energy. While the near-absence of emotional commotion doesn’t hobble Bull, there’s no question it keeps it tied down.
Bull is opening at AFS Cinema on April 17 for a limited "virtual cinema" run before its full VOD release on May 1. Director Annie Silverstein is recording a special introduction for AFS, and Friday's screening will be followed by a discussion with Silverstein and producer Monique Walton. Tickets available at www.austinfilm.org.