Annie Silverstein has already been a winner in Cannes, despite this being her debut feature, as she won the Cinefondation Prize back in 2014 with her short Skunk. Appearing in the Un Certain Regard section, Bull is a solid first feature with superb performances from the two leads.
The story revolves around teenager Kris (Amber Havard) who is a Texan trouble magnet, much like her miscreant mother, who we meet on prison visits. Kris and her little sister are ensconced with grandma while mom is in jail and the strain is telling on all of them. One of Kris’s acts of rebellion leads her to having to make amends with neighbour Abe (Rob Morgan). Her penance for wrongdoing sees her cleaning and doing odd jobs and it looks like Abe might put her on the straight and narrow. Yet Abe is also a flawed character with his own demons to deal with – predominantly pain, wrought after years of bull riding and bullfighting.
There are so many small moments of pleasure and real surprises: the first surprise – for this critic, at least – was to see that rodeos are pretty much segregated in Texas, with blacks having their own travelling shows and rodeo stars. It had never occurred to me that rodeos were even part of black culture, such is their invisibility on screen. The small pleasures are often found in the mainly non-professional cast and in Kris’s relationships with her family. This all-female family unit (dad is never seen or even mentioned) is excellently portrayed, particularly the grandmother, who manages to summon a range of emotions with a glance. Morgan and Havard are excellent as the leads and are immensely likeable characters. And what a wonderful voice Morgan has; a beautiful resonant timbre.
The scenes in the rodeo ring are dramatic and genuinely terrifying, the camera taking us close enough to the action to almost smell the sawdust and cow dung and fear the proximity to the powerful bulls. We jump from black rodeo to white and back again, seeing the parallels between these two separate universes.
There are similarities between this film and those of Roberto Minervini or Chloe Zhao, who was in Cannes two years ago with her own rodeo film The Rider. Both these directors focus on unseen worlds that exist in America’s south and on the unseen populace that, if we do hear about them, are depicted in a poor light. Like Minervini and Zhao, Silverstein provides us with a story of people searching for dignity in spite of their impoverished and neglected states and she does so without being patronising or seeking an easy tale of southern melodrama. This is an excellent debut and it will be exciting to see what Silverstein has in store for us next.