Annie Silverstein’s rough-edged debut, “Bull,” begins the same way her short film “Skunk” did, with an unruly dog chewing on the carcass of the creature it has caught. A teenage girl runs outside to deal with the situation — a half-wild child wrestling to control a rebellious animal — and in the hours and days that follow, Silverstein observes the small but critical choices the impulsive young woman makes to distinguish herself from the distracted parents, adults, and would-be role models in her life.
But if “Skunk” — a 15-minute treasure that won the Cinéfondation short film prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and automatically earned Silverstein’s follow-up a spot in official selection this year — promised big things to come, then the director’s five-years-later “Bull” is a disappointment, coming off too much like its predecessor, rather than a different kind of animal. Both are shaky, faux-thentic portraits of South Texas teens who don’t have a lot of options, and who could at any moment make a decision that inadvertently derails their future.
Those stakes are heightened here, since “Bull’s” 14-year-old protagonist, Kris (Amber Havard), has no father to speak of and a mom (Sara Albright) behind bars; she hangs out with delinquents and lives in an impoverished community — all factors that put this particular youth “at risk.” But the story feels lean, and most of the cast, while convincing, don’t leap off the screen the way the ensemble in an Andrea Arnold movie does (the British director’s “Wasp” and “Fist Tank” are almost certainly among Silverstein’s top influences).
You don’t have to be a social scientist to know that the chances that Kris could wind up in juvie are significantly higher than they might be for a rich kid whose grass is mowed, bills are paid, and parents are still together. Maybe that’s one reason movies tend to shy away from characters like Kris, someone who doesn’t yet know what she wants from life, and therefore wouldn’t know where to turn to find a mentor or take the first step. But that’s already something that sets “Bull” apart, showing sensitivity to someone who doesn’t even believe in herself. Yet.
What’s clear when we meet Kris — who’s allowed to behave in ways that she doesn’t seem to understand, as adolescents often do — is that she’s pushing back on what little authority her grandmother-guardian (Keeli Wheeler) provides. She picks fights in school, sneaks down to the river to flirt with the boys, and breaks into the house of an African-American neighbor to host an impromptu party with a bunch of kids from her class. It’s this last stunt that lands her in trouble: The owner comes home, the cops are called, and Kris is ready to accept the first strike in her criminal record when she catches a break.
Abe (Rob Morgan), whose house these n-word-using white kids vandalized (and whose chicken Kris found in her dog’s mouth during that first scene), decides not to press charges, so long as Kris agrees to help him with errands. Abe was once a Professional Bull Rider, but these days he mostly works as a rodeo protection athlete, getting agitated bulls to chase him so the cowboys can scramble to safety once they’ve been bucked. It’s dangerous work, and Abe’s got the chronic pains and gnarly scars to prove it. As the movie advances, Silverstein carves out more and more time for him, to the degree that “Bull” ultimately belongs as much to him as to Kris.
As the title suggests, Kris takes an interest in this line of work, tagging along to watch Abe in action at black rodeo events after he gets fired from the PBR — just one more injustice in a movie that depicts, with zero indignation but no shortage of empathy, how it feels to be on the disadvantaged end of how opportunity is apportioned in America. That’s another way “Bull” diverges from other coming-of-age stories: If this were a studio movie, or an inspirational documentary, the filmmaker would surely focus on the notion that Kris is a natural talent. But she’s not. She’s merely curious, and that’s the first step in steering her away from the less wholesome temptations that surround her — like selling Oxycodone pills for a Lukas Haas-looking sketchball (Steven Boyd).
These two adults — the painkiller-dependent ex-rodeo neighbor and the opiate-dealing creep who used to date Kris’ mother — represent two paths her future could take. What “Bull” won’t do is whisk audiences away into some dream of this young woman becoming a rodeo star. It’s simply not that kind of movie — and that’s too bad, because a bit of formula would have boosted this relatively flat drama, which can otherwise feel stagnant for long stretches.
Silverstein and her husband-co-writer-research partner Johnny McAllister are committed to capturing “reality” (that most elusive of goals), working predominantly with nonprofessional actors and shooting in a style that looks as if someone were tickling the camera operator the whole time. If you can get past that unnecessarily turbulent handheld style (too self-conscious to be subliminal), then you’ll likely find yourself connecting with the film’s “rurban” milieu — a unique place where the tetanus-shot feel of rusty fences and chipped paint evokes the texture of seldom-filmed farm-like country neighborhoods where residents raise animals or crops in their backyards.
That’s likely worth the price of admission for some, especially in a place like Cannes, where international audiences are privileged a glimpse into a side of American life that even cosmopolitan Americans don’t know. But the film doesn’t spark the way other Southern stories do — be it the more amplified world of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or Micah Magee’s like-minded “Petting Zoo,” which delivers the nuances Silverstein never quite achieves here. Too often, “Bull” leaves us on the outside of what Kris is going through, peering through windows that reflect what we already know about her experience.