“Bull” is one of those quiet heartland indie dramas that can serve as a tonic after a steady diet of blockbuster. It’s about human connection, which is much on people’s minds in these days of global pandemic. And it’s about rodeo bull riders, a group of people I’ve always thought should have their heads examined.
To a 14-year-old girl who has a mad on for the entire world, by contrast, the notion of remaining atop 2,000 pounds of angry hamburger for eight seconds makes a weird sort of sense. It’s certainly more exciting than anything else in her life. And over the course of “Bull,” a festival award-winner now arriving on streaming video, you can see the glowing expression on the face of Kris (newcomer Amber Havard) as she realizes, A person could do this. I could do this.
Directed by Annie Silverstein (and co-written with husband/producer Johnny McAllister), “Bull” is best when it brings us into the lives of Black bullriders on the informal “backyard rodeo” circuit in and around Houston. Abe (Rob Morgan, a rangy, hardworking character actor getting a welcome lead) used to be a big name in the professional (white) arenas, but he’s sustained enough damage over the years that he’s reduced to working as a “bullfighter,” diverting the animals after a rider is thrown. It’s one step up from a “barrelman,” or rodeo clown, and Abe isn’t going in the right direction.
He lives in a dusty dead-end West Houston neighborhood, up the street from Kris’s hard-luck family. Kris’s mother (Sara Allbright) is in prison, her grandmother (Keeli Wheeler) is fed up, and her dog has a taste for Abe’s chickens. Newcomer Havard has one of those faces that’s unremarkable when shut down yet can bloom into something close to beautiful when life matches up to her expectations, which it hasn’t for a long while. Plus, boys are starting to buzz around, and not one of them is any good.
Kris becomes indentured to an angry Abe after she wrecks his house during a teenage drinking party, and here is where a more Hollywood-minded movie would cue the intergenerational/interracial bonding. Which “Bull” does, but in its own sweet time. Silverstein is an Austin-based filmmaker who has logged a number of years helping disadvantaged and troubled youths, and while she wants to set the stage for Kris’s redemption, she knows better than to make it too easy. Nor is it clear that Abe is going to be “healed” in any substantial way by their grudging if growing friendship. The film aims for a tone of observant, respectful realism, which results in some slack patches but also has the virtue of honesty.
When Abe finally puts Kris on a bull, she lasts about half a second – a prodigy she is not. She also learns enough to be scared, which may be the more valuable lesson. Abe has much time-tested wisdom to pass along, but “Bull” avoids painting him into a “magical negro” corner by setting him within the wider community of modern Black cowboys, bull-riding students, a wary occasional girlfriend (Yolonda Ross of TV’s “The Chi”), and the bustling scene around the William Johnson arena in Egypt, Texas, where Silverstein’s cameras capture a tradition as longstanding as and much less commercialized than the “official” rodeos closer to town.
The film never spells it out, but it’s that tradition that draws Kris — the understanding that there’s continuity, community, lore, and mastery to be found here, if nowhere else. Because a movie has to have a villain, “Bull” brings in a skeevy older man (Steven Boyd) to tempt Kris with easy money selling opioids, and the resolution of that storyline is one of the movie’s few missteps; it’s poetic, but I didn’t buy it. Much better are the final scenes, scored to a nighttime chorus of cicadas that very gently intertwines with William Ryan Fritch’s discreet soundtrack music. You can hear the animal world in “Bull,” and it’s closer than you think.
Directed by Annie Silverstein. Written by Silverstein and Johnny McAllister. Starring Rob Morgan, Amber Havard. Available for rental on cable systems and streaming-video platforms. 105 minutes. Unrated (language, drug use, teenage drinking, rodeo violence)