On par with The Florida Project and Lean on Pete, Annie Silverstein's impressive debut feature Bull is a bracing examination of modern poverty, a sympathetic look at those trapped by circumstances out of their control, forced to live a life where few options for advancement exist, an existence that ultimately becomes void of meaning or purpose. Populating her cast predominantly with non-actors, the filmmaker brings a sense of authenticity to the screen that allows her to powerfully drive home the tragedy that surrounds her cast of characters, an inescapable trap not simply for those living today but for generations to come.
Crystal (Amber Havard) is a young teen dealing with issues no one should have to contend with. With her mother in prison, she's living with her grandmother and little sister in a rundown neighborhood that prosperity and opportunity has skipped over. Gravitating towards other kids from troubled homes, she willingly becomes involved in their questionable activities in order to gain acceptance. However, their behavior goes too far one night when they break into a neighbor's house, throw an impromptu party and trash the place. When Abe (Rob Morgan) returns to his home to find it destroyed, he also finds Crystal; instead of having her arrested, an arrangement is made for her to make right what she's done. Animosity between the two eventually gives way to grudging mutual respect as the girl finds herself spending more and more time with the former rodeo rider.
The relationship that forms between the two is far from being a Hollywood feel-good story. Credit Silverstein and her co-writer Johnny McAllister for eschewing narrative expectations. While there are times when the film seems to meander or spin its wheels, the filmmakers are patiently layering the story with incidents of behavior that results in a far more meaningful, emotionally honest film. Simple conversations, off-hand interactions and quiet encounters are all used to build a sense of intimacy that is felt, rather than simply witnessed, by the viewer. Silverstein employs a deft touch throughout and the ultimate emotional impact is authentic and profound.
Havard emerges as the filmmaker's secret weapon. Unaffected and sincere, this first-time actress' open face and searching eyes draw us in from the start, bringing a raw edge to Crystal that smacks of realism. Havard's earnest approach holds her in good stead throughout, allowing us to connect with Crystal in a way no technical approach could accomplish. We feel her longing, her desperate search for purpose and agonize when the modest dreams she holds dear are cruelly dashed through no fault of her own. She's destined to follow in her mother's footsteps and despite acting in an off-putting manner at times, we recognize that Crystal is responding because she's incapable of processing the series of bad breaks that hold her back. It is because of Havard's fine work that our heart breaks for this young girl and that we find ourselves hoping against hope, that she will somehow find a bit of much-deserved happiness.
As Abe, Morgan brings a haunted quality to the character that is equally moving. Recognizing the many missed opportunities in his life, the cowboy is desperate for one last chance to make good, seeking a sense of personal redemption that will partially assuage his pain. The actor subtly conveys this with a small movement or glance, his gestures far more than displays of weariness.
And it is because of the exceptional work of these two that Bull's final scene proves so devastating and effective. The groundwork laid out by these two and Silverstein comes to fruition in the movie's brief final moment, a plea for an emotional connection between two lost souls. The honesty present in this scene, as well as the entire film, makes Bull one of the year's best movies.