Cannes Film Review: ‘Bull’

Award-winning director Annie Silverstein's feature debut follows an at-risk 14-year-old who develops an interest in bull riding.

Annie Silverstein
Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolonda Ross

Running time: 108 MIN.

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 “Fish 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.

Cannes Film Review: 'Bull'

Reviewed at Club 13, Paris, May 11, 2019. (In Cannes Film Festival — Un Certain Regard.) Running time: 108 MIN.

Production: A Bert Marcus Film presentation, with Invisible Pictures, in association with 30West. Producers: Monique Walton, Bert Marcus, Heather Rae, Ryan Zacarias, Audrey Rosenberg. Executive producers: Cassandra Thornton, Johnny McAllister, Jess Jacobs, Sandhya Shardanand. Co-executive producers: Nion McEvoy, Katy Drake Bettner. Co-producer: Jerri Moore.

Crew: Director: Annie Silverstein. Screenplay: Annie Silverstein, Johnny McAllister. Camera (color, widescreen): Shabier Kirchner. Editors: Miguel Schverdfinger, Todd Holmes. Music: William Ryan Fritch.

With: Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolonda Ross, Keira Bennett, Reign, Keeli Wheeler, Sara Albright, Reece McClure.

More Film

  • it chapter two, comic con

    Comic-Con: 4500 Gallons of Fake Blood and Everything Else to Know About 'It Chapter Two''

    Comic-Con 2019 kicked off with a stacked presentation from the director and cast of “It Chapter Two” on Wednesday, inspiring a curious amount of joy at San Diego’s Spreckles Theater in spite of the abject terror offered up by the film. The closing chapter to 2017’s record-obliterating “It,” the highest grossing R-rated horror film of [...]

  • 'Between Me and My Mind' Review:

    Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind'

    Trey Anastasio doesn’t look like a rock star. With his thick rimless glasses and flop of sandy red hair, you might say he resembles John Sebastian, but really, he looks like a mashup of Mike White and Jon Cryer and the filmmaker Chris Smith. He’s an appealingly ordinary shaggy-geek dude, like some guy you might [...]

  • Photo taken July 18, 2019, from

    More Than 20 Feared Dead in Arson Attack on Japan's Kyoto Animation

    UPDATED: More than 20 people are feared to have died Thursday morning in an arson attack on the Kyoto Animation company in Japan, shocking a nation in which extreme violence is very rare. Emergency services in Kyoto City received a call about 10:35 a.m. local time reporting an explosion on the first floor of the [...]

  • sith trooper

    Sith Trooper Revealed From 'Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker'

    “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” revealed a new storm trooper uniform Wednesday at San Diego Comic Con as part of a special exhibit celebrating the evolution of the storm trooper design. Dubbed the Sith trooper, the new uniform sports all-red armor plates with a matching red and black blaster. Also decorating the armor is [...]

  • Dunkirk

    Harry Styles Is the Perfect Prince Eric; Why He'd Rock 'Little Mermaid' Role

    Could Harry Styles be the perfect Prince Eric? One day after the announcement that the One Direction star is “in early negotiations to play the iconic ‘Little Mermaid’ role,” the internet exploded with speculation as to how he would portray the object of Ariel’s affections. “I can see lots of reasons why Harry is perfect,” [...]

  • The Lion King

    Film News Roundup: PETA Sponsors Rescued Lion in Jon Favreau's Name

    In today’s film news roundup, PETA honors Jon Favreau for “The Lion King,” “Tigers Are Not Afraid” gets a theatrical release, a Kirk Franklin biopic is in development and “The Sixth Sense” gets an anniversary showing in Philadelphia. HONOR More Reviews TV Review: 'Pennyworth' Film Review: Trey Anastasio in 'Between Me and My Mind' The [...]

  • Tokyo Director-in-Focus-at-Japan-Now

    Nobuhiko Obayashi set as Japanese Director in Focus at Tokyo Film Festival

    Indie director, Nobuhiko Obayashi will be feted as the director in focus at the Japan Now section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. The festival will give a world premiere to his “Labyrinth of Cinema.” Supporting his art by shooting commercials, Obayashi is an indie whose dreamy works have influenced numerous other directors in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content