Movie Review: “Bull,” the first great movie of 2020

The teenage girl wants the rodeo clown to give away his secrets, how he does his job distracting the bull when the bullrider’s been thrown or in trouble.

“How do you know when the rider’s about to fall off?”

“When his head hits the ground.”

“Bull” is the compelling, understated and surprising story of how these two got to that conversation. Writer-director Annie Silverstein’s immerses us in a little-filmed world of working class poverty where one life is hitting a dead end and another going off the rails just as it leaves the station.

Screen newcomer Amber Havard is Kristal, “Kris,” a 15 year-old whose life seems laid out before her, no salvation in sight. She lies like she breathes, poker-faced every time she does. She’s a walking, rarely-talking stereotype — poor white trash, living off her temper and her irresponsible impulses, the last kid on Earth you’d want looking after an adoring little sister, or a pit bull.

It’s the dog that’s run her afoul of Abe, the 50ish black man living down the street. The dog has a habit of breaking into his chicken coop and killing chickens. Abe, given a stoic resignation by Rob Morgan (“Stranger Things,””Daredevil”), lets himself get mad at one thing. He knows these chickens by name.

Kris is more than her diabetic grandmother can handle, and we are not surprised that A) Momma (Sara Allbright) is in prison and B) Kris is taking after her, fighting at school, paying no heed to a future that ends lives like hers almost before they’ve begun.

Kris’s impulse is to get even with the guy who chewed her out over his chickens. She sees he’s out of town on weekends. Messing around his house, her minor vandalism turns into “Let’s impress my ‘friends'” by breaking in and hosting a trash-the-house, drink-his-booze, steal-his-drugs party.

She’s Miss “Can’t you just take me to juvie?” to the cops. But grandma’s pleas have Abe letting her work off some sort of restitution.

Silverstein’s film avoids the timeworn traps of this sort of movie. There’s no epiphany that comes from caring for the stranger’s chickens. But as he makes her help him in his sideline, teaching boys to bull ride, this becomes her new impulse. And with the way she is, we know it won’t be her last.

Abe’s drugs were pain medicine, and he needs it for that weekend job — dressing as a clown (“I ain’t no clown.”) and working in the ring, keeping riders safe at the rodeo. He used to ride himself, and has the scars and aches to prove it.

He works in that world, where seeing a black face is still rare. But he’s a part of another one, where guys like him and old pal Mike (Troy Anthony Hogan) teach black teenagers the skills needed for the black rodeo, a veritable “chitlin’ circuit” alternative to the pro rodeo circuit that makes it on TV.

Silverstein’s film shows us a culture clash where there is no “clash.” Eyebrows might be raised as this white girl hanging around black men and Texas (Angleton, Houston) African American culture. Abe might seem like a better role model than Kris’s family and peers — kids who have no prospects, no ambition and little sign of being cared for. But they’ve got phones and tattoos because impulsive parents enable impulsive teens.

But these are not screen lives with sweeping character arcs. Abe is at the end of the line in his career, something an old flame (Yolanda Ross) reminds him of, but can’t make him agree to. Kris barely interrupts her run of bad choices as new choices start to present themselves.

She remains her Mamma’s child, even if realizing that is the first step towards escaping her fate.

“Bull’s” calling card is its sense of capturing lives as they’re being lived, immersing us in this world, dreading that next ride, that next blunder, fearing for our leads and those close to them.

It’s everything a screen drama and indie film should be — a novel story, characters we rarely see and care about and immersion in a world we know nothing about.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: unrated, drug and alcohol use, sex/nudity, profanity, violence

Cast: Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolonda Ross, Sara Allbright

Credits: Directed by Annie Silverstein, script by Annie Silverstein and  Johnny McAllister. A Samuel Goldwyn release.

Running time: 1:48

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