Wednesday 15 May 2019

Cannes 2019 - Bull by Annie Silverstein

In Bull, Kris (Amber Havard), a teenager in Texas from very modest social environment, seems to have her life already mapped out in front of her with very few opportunities, until she meets ageing rodeo wrangler Abe (Rob Morgan) and strikes an unlikely friendship with him.

Bull, presented in the Un Certain Regard sidebar selection in Cannes, will most probably suffer from an unfair comparison with Chloe Zhao's arthouse sensation The Rider (2017), because of a somehow similar premise and the fact that both are directed by women, which seems a little easy and unfair.

On paper, Bull might sound like the kind of calibrated indie runaway sensations that pollute film festivals, yet Annie Silverstein eschews both feel good artifice and social voyeurism. While the very fidgety camera of the early scenes might make us fear the worse excess in cinema verité, it quickly slows down, taking a step back to let its story unfold.

The director treads that fine line between easy resolution and abject misery fest, her film never taking the easy route, both narratively and aesthetically. Kris does not have an obvious path to improve herself and her life could easily go wrong, with so few options to get out and so many ways to go off the rails, which are made very apparent throughout the film, be it no-future young men who seek to exploit her, illegal activities or simply a juvenile institution, a fate she seems to have already accepted.

There are no big emotional flights of fancy however and Abe, while a mentor figure of some sorts, is certainly not a perfect role model either, even though his lifestyle stills seems like an improvement from Kris's own acquaintances, although the director very carefully avoids any kind of judgment on them.

The burgeoning friendship between Kris and Abe is a marvel of understatement and subtlety and one that is not easily defined. Is it curiosity or loneliness that brings them together? There are no forced, big emotional beat, no running for each other to hug while crying! Abe acts as a father figure for many youths in his life and there is an apparent willingness to help the people around him improve their lot, which makes his disappointment when Kris once again missteps all the more searing.

Kris's character is one of these rare teenagers portrayed on film that actually feels real, not like those usual smarty pants annoyances. She is often inscrutable because like so many people in her age range, she just does not know what she wants and Amber Havard deserves all the praise for perfectly understanding the script, and making her interesting as there is always the slight danger that understated characters can end up making no impact on screen! This is all the most commendable as she is a non professional so credit is also due to the director for eliciting such a great performance.

She takes a passing interest in Abe's world of bull riding and rodeo but thankfully just as the audience might worry that the film is about to take a sharp narrative turn in which she becomes a rodeo teenage sensation, it is clear that she has no particular talent in this field. Yet she shows that very teenage stubbornness in claiming she is going to make the money her family badly needs by riding bull and she can be infuriating at times, making some bad decisions indeed.

The scenes in which she visits her mum in jail are also handled beautifully, with Kris showing both the resilience of a young woman and the emotional distress of a child who has not fully grown yet. Her mum could have been a one-note caricature but she is seen as somebody who really means well even though she keeps betraying her loved ones and herself.

Annie Silverstein's depicting of a neighbourhood of Houston that is on the cusp of deprivation also includes a welcome commentary on race relations that never feels like a lecture, with the way she represents the rodeo circuit and its higher and lower echelons.

Bull is a an understated and a quietly affecting gem and a promising debut for Annie Silverstein, one that confirms the expectations placed onto her when she won the Cinefondation award for best short film in Cannes in 2014.

Review by Laurent de Alberti

Star rating: 

Official Selection, Un Certain Regard

Bull. USA 2019. Directed by Annie Silverstein. Starring Amber Havard, Rob Morgan...

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