By Richard Ades
Tough but touching, Bull is the story of a girl’s coming of age amid the direst of conditions. It’s also the story of her unlikely relationship with an aging rodeo performer, as well as a window into a subculture most of us know nothing about.
Kris (Amber Havard) is a 14-year-old living on the outskirts of Houston with her grandmother and younger sister while she waits for her mother to serve out a prison term. Mostly left on her own, she has a tendency to get into the kind of trouble that suggests she’ll eventually follow in her mom’s self-destructive footsteps.
One such incident lands Kris on the bad side of neighbor Abe (Rob Morgan), a former rodeo bull rider who lives next door. Hobbled by years’ worth of injuries, Abe can no longer ride, but he stubbornly clings to his old life by serving as one of the daredevils who race into the ring to divert bulls’ attention away from fallen contestants.
Despite being mad at Abe for forcing her to make amends by doing chores, Kris quickly becomes fascinated by his former occupation. When she sees him training teenage boys how to ride bulls, she begs him to let her try and soon seizes on bull riding as her ticket to a better life.
That sounds like the making of a happy, not to mention sappy, ending, but director/co-writer Annie Silverstein has no intention of giving her characters easy solutions. Abe and Kris are too complicated for that, as are their problems.
Abe is too bitter over life’s setbacks to willingly serve as Kris’s surrogate father, and she’s not looking for one anyway. She clearly craves male companionship, but—perhaps taking after her mother—she appears to be drawn to “bad boys.”
She first gloms onto a mischief-making teen named Daryl (Reece McClure), but she soon transfers her attention to Billy (Steven Boyd), an adult who turns out to be just as unscrupulous as he seems. Savvy performances by leads Morgan and Havard, sensitively captured by director Silverstein, make the consequences both harrowing and moving.
Though they’re very different films, it’s hard not to compare Bull with Chloe Zhao’s The Rider (2017). Each exposes us to a part of Western culture that’s often overlooked—Native American cowboys in the earlier film, black cowboys in this one. And each deals with a man whose health challenges keep him from plying his chosen career.
Both films are great, but Bull gets the edge due to its absorbing tale of two lonely people who need each other far more than they’re willing to admit.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Bull opens May 1 through VOD outlets. The film is not rated but contains rough language and brief instances of sexual content, nudity and drug use.