By Scott Tobias
“Can’t you just take me to juvie?”
There’s a disturbing resignation to the way Kris, a 14-year-old white girl from a run-down Houston suburb, poses the question to a cop who’s picked her up for trashing a neighbor’s house. Her mother is already in jail and her grandmother, dirt poor and overtaxed in the best of times, lacks the health and the resource to look after her and her little sister. Kris’ academic prospects are so dire that her English teacher doesn’t even bother to call her out in class for watching a video on her phone. “I saw you, Kris,” the teacher says. “I’m just to the point where I don’t care anymore.”
Getting the audience to care is a challenge, too, though the two first-timers responsible for Bull, director Annie Silverstein and her lead actress, Amber Havard, are up to the task. Despite the sentimental outlines of the story, which ultimately centers on the redemptive relationship between Kris and an aging African-American bull rider, don’t actively court sympathy for her. They want to make her persuasive first, so they emphasize the deflating apathy of a girl who doesn’t believe her future will be any different than her mother’s. Kris doesn’t want to take even the minimal steps to keep herself out of trouble. She just wants to get it over with.
There are several recent points of comparison for Bull, like the Heartland drift of a traveling magazine sellers in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, the lost children in the shadows of Disney World in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, or the teenage girl fighting her way through meth country in Winter’s Bone. Bull could use more of the expressive spark of those great films — it’s humble and low-key to a fault — but it share with them a keen sense of what it’s like to grow up poor in America, and how even young children become aware of their narrowed options. What’s different about Kris is that she doesn’t have the will to fight for anything better, at least not at first.