Rodeo and rodeo-adjacent movies are having something of a renaissance right now, and with generally excellent results — films like The Mustang and The Rider showed beautifully how close human contact with animals can affect and reform individuals.

Enter Bull, director Annie Silverstein‘s attempt to throw her hat into this exceptionally niche ring. On the surface, Bull checks all the boxes — outstanding performance from a debut actor, gorgeous camerawork, understated style — but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that there’s simply not much to work with here.

Bull follows two main characters: Kris, a 14-year old girl left directionless after her mother’s incarceration, and Abe, an ex-bull rider now doing odd jobs on the rodeo circuit. The movie acts as though it tells the stories of both Kris and Abe, but Kris is the real center of the show here. Bull‘s forays into Abe’s personal life and interiority are shallow and underserve the truly exceptional performance given by the perennially undervalued Rob Morgan.

Newcomer Amber Havard also excels as Kris, using her real-seaming reticence to suggest a whole world beneath her guarded demeanor. It’s unfortunate, then, that these actors are given so little to work with in terms of material. The film’s plot is equal parts uninspired and predictable, and its failure to meaningfully surprise prevents the audience from getting a deeper look into its central character.

I say “meaningfully” surprise because Bull does indeed contain a few shocks — each of them ridiculous and done with a clumsy grasp of the pen. Kris’s journey is stalled so often and so unsubtly that it makes one question why the film must frame it as a journey to begin with, and Abe’s blasé character arc is one normally reserved for a much smaller role, here brought to quasi-lead status.

There is also the uneasy question of race here. Kris plays something of a “white trash” character, taken under the wing of Abe and his black bull riders. Aside from a few awkward insertions of the n-word in the mouths of the movie’s more unsavory figures, the racial dynamics at play go almost entirely unexplored. To make a movie about black rodeo riders is its own statement; Silverstein just declines to give it any meat.

There is much to mourn in Bull‘s haphazard plotting, as the film really does impress in most other categories. Aside from a few outliers on the periphery, performances are solid all around. The cinematography is also generally impressive, with the film achieving a nice visual style sparing the occasional ill-advised camera tilt. Bull has all of the right elements of a good movie but seems to be missing a central foundation to build from.

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