Social worker and documentary filmmaker Annie Silverstein won the Cinéfondation award at Cannes for her short film Skunk in 2014, and now, with Bull, her fiction feature debut, she’s in the running for both the Un Certain Regard award and the Camera d’Or. Set in the desolate no man’s land where the sprawl of Houston bleeds out into the grassy plains, the story centers on the unlikely bond between Kris, a white fourteen-year-old living with her ill grandmother while her mother serves time, and Abe, a black rodeo rider verging on the edge of aging out of a job. Rob Morgan (Mudbound, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) “plays Abe as a beaten-down man who has let selfishness and alcoholism determine his dim fate,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson, “while first-timer [Amber] Havard is superbly sullen and withholding, giving us a troubled teen who is apprehensive about trying to make a connection with this older man lest she be disappointed by yet another adult.”
At RogerEbert.com, Barbara Scharres admires the way that Silverstein “underscores the isolation of her characters, most often placing them alone in the frame, or with other actors blurred or only partially visible. The frequent use of close-ups and muted light, and the manipulation of depth of field within the image serve to suggest a shadowy environment in which there is very little moral clarity.” Variety’s Peter Debruge, though, seems irritated by “a style that looks as if someone were tickling the camera operator the whole time.”
For the Hollywood Reporter’s Jon Frosch, Bull “offers a clear-eyed, condescension-free portrait of American struggle, fleshed out with authentic detail and imbued with a deeply lived-in sense of fading hopes and day-to-day economic precariousness.” Frosch would rank Bull with other “really good movies about intergenerational friendship” such as Sean Baker’s Starlet (2012) and Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd (2017), and he sees in Silverstein’s work the influence of such directors as Debra Granik, Kelly Reichardt, and Lance Hammer.
Drawing comparisons to two films from 2017, Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete and Chloé Zhao’s The Rider, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis suggests that Bull “belongs to a group of recent movies that feel directly rather than metaphorically in dialogue with the Hollywood western and, by extension, the worldview it often advanced. Here, cowboys don’t roam the frontier herding cattle and protecting wagon trains. Instead, they risk their lives entertaining crowds, suffering injuries and popping Oxycodone to ease the pain. Silverstein stacks the deck awfully high—race relations, class tensions, and the American opioid crisis all figure into the story—but her empathy and ability to settle into the silences between people buoy both the movie and you.”
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