The plot summary of Annie Silverstein’s Bull — in which a troubled teen girl from Texas develops an unlikely bond with her neighbor, an alcoholic, pill-popping rodeo clown — can’t help but make the film sound like it was generated through the algorithm made up from a decade’s worth of indie festival catalog descriptions. There’s the imprisoned mom, the younger sibling, the drug dealer who’s a little too friendly, the central metaphor of bull riding as confronting one’s fears. And the movie has the style down pat: nonprofessional actors, mixed handheld camerawork, and a bevy of deteriorating exurban settings. But at the same time, Silverstein’s sympathetic patience for her self-sabotaging characters is enough to keep one interested, even when it seems obvious that the characters aren’t really ever going to change.
The film centers on Kris (Amber Havard), a fourteen-year-old who’s mom (Sara Allbright) is in jail and lives with her grandmother and younger sister right next door to Abe (Rob Morgan), the aforementioned rodeo worker (or “rodeo protection athlete”). Kris seems predestined to follow her mom through her troubling ways of trying to impress the wrong crowd, which soon includes breaking into Abe’s house while he’s gone for the weekend so that her racist hick friends can party, steal his pills, and drink his booze. The next morning, Abe finds out, calls the cops, but Kris’ grandma pleads with him to make a deal. He agrees to not press charges as long as the kid cleans up the mess and continues to help around the house. And slowly Kris begins to develop an interest in bull riding and Abe takes a shine to her without ever truly softening his cantankerous exterior.
Throughout, Morgan delivers a deeply believable performance as Abe, a man whose years of rodeo injuries have left him bitter and stiff. As well, Silverstein’s willingness to empathize with the more aggravating traits of her characters is one of the film’s better qualities. But by the laws of social-realist cinema physics, Kris’ path to finding herself inevitably involves a certain number of broken promises and lost ways, as she also becomes involved in dealing oxycodone for her mom’s ex-boyfriend, Billy (Steven Boyd), who looks like the textbook definition of a sleaze. Bull is not a fast-paced or especially dynamic movie, and while that sometimes helps it in terms of characterization, it also turns the film into a slow-rolling Ken Loach-esque look at opioid-crisis America —just not as miserablist. In fact, it appears to end just as it’s beginning to articulate its conflicts. Perhaps this is because the logical third act that Silverstein has set for this story would be likely be sentimentally hokey. But while Silverstein’s sensibilities admirably steer away from phoniness, the results take Bull into a film that doesn’t so much wrestle with its characters, as it more just shruggedly acknowledges that they exist.
To The Stars
The rural 1960s Oklahoma that makes up To the Stars is defined by its empty space. The skies are vast and the fields largely uncultivated. The roads are dusty and so little is trafficked, with each passing vehicle feeling momentous, like a new life approaching on the horizon. And that’s kind of how it happens for Iris (Kara Hayward), a timid teenager who’s being tormented by hooting jocks in a pickup truck along her path to school one morning when foul-mouthed, fearless city girl Maggie (Liana Liberato) comes to her rescue in a brand-new car. If their meeting feels like magic, it’s the sleigh-of-hand kind, as writer Shannon Bradley-Colleary and director Martha Stephens embark on a love story so subtle, that it isn’t really a love story at all. In some hands, the material would be intriguing. Here, however, it’s just tepid.
After their fateful meeting on the side of the highway, Iris and Maggie strike up a friendship based on their mutual tendency for sneaking out in the middle of the night to go swimming at a nearby pond. Their sleepy town of Wakita, Oklahoma, is typical of small-town America, in that its wholesome milk-fed exterior masks the rotten scent of pungent gossip and bitter dissatisfaction — embodied through the film’s supporting cast of drunken housewives and their bitchy cheerleader daughters. And both pose real threats to the reckless Maggie, who hides behind a slew of lies. But there’s no reckoning without a few hiccups first, and Iris picks up some of her new friend’s confidence and popularity as they skip class, drink, and make inroads with the popular clique at school. Overall, with a few tweaks, To the Stars could seemingly blend in nicely as a well-intentioned and somewhat minor piece of LGBTQ cinema. But the script swerves away from its otherwise conventional narrative just when you think it’s about time for those two lonely outcasts to find love with each other — again, something that could have been a positive with a more finessed or inspired execution. It may seem counterintuitive to wish that a film could have leaned more into the expected, but if To the Stars is willing to engage in the old trope of everyone noticing the formerly shy girl once she takes off her glasses and changes up her hair, then why not let Iris and Maggie just be in love?
It gets to be an especially frustrating plot turn given that much of To the Stars plays like a junior version of Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts. Visually, though, the film seems to take a fair amount from Peter Bogdanovich, from both the setting and the aura of the images. But the influence plays even bigger when you see how the original version of the film that played at Sundance in 2019, was presented in a more interesting black and white instead of the faded, washed-out color palette it’s been changed to (it is important to say that the film’s distributor has put out both versions, but is pushing the color version more). Ultimately, To the Stars suffers from a few too many undeveloped themes — like an obscure comment on the trappings of femininity that, ironically enough, dissipates after that fateful makeover — and haphazard plot elements to truly absorb the viewer into its world. Similarly, although its supporting cast boasts the talents of Shea Whigham, Tony Hale, and Malin Akerman, the performances lack the intuitive spark that can make otherwise flawed material engaging. To the Stars, throughout, strives for power in subtly and modesty, but without other more developed elements and flavors to further enhance them, the film arrives in lukewarm fashion.