A contrived story about an unlikely friendship proves absorbing and believable in “Bull,” the debut feature of writer-director Annie Silverstein with satisfying lead performances and immersing atmosphere and now streaming on Amazon Prime.
The plot is familiar: A directionless, troubled young person and a jaded, older grump, after mutual antagonism, begin bonding and boosting each other’s spirits. But Silverstein removes the Hollywood sugarcoating. Like filmmakers Debra Granik and Kelly Reichardt, she realistically incorporates social themes (poverty and marginalization) into the picture.
In a depressed community on the outskirts of Houston, Krystal (Amber Havard), 14, lives with her struggling grandmother and is helping care for her younger sister while her mother (Sara Allbright) is serving time.
Kris picks fights at school and hangs out with delinquent boys, who smoke, drink and pepper their discourse with racist words.
So defeatist is Kris about her future that when cops arrive to apprehend her after she’s broken into the house of neighbor Abe Turner (Rob Morgan) and thrown a party there, she questions an offer of leniency. “Can’t you just take me to juvie?” she asks.
The leniency deal, which Kris accepts, involves performing chores for Abe, a grouchy, middle-aged, painkiller-popping former rodeo performer whose bull-riding injuries have forced him out of the ring. He now works in lesser capacities at black rodeos and can’t imagine leaving the rodeo life.
Kris accompanies Abe to a rodeo, where she rides a mechanical bull, exhilarated. Her interest in the sport prompts Abe to teach her some basics. A barely acknowledged but meaningful friendship develops.
At the same time, Kris isn’t immune to the lure of her former ways. Personifying that path is an opiate dealer (Steven Boyd) her mom used to date. Selling drugs means fast money.
As dramatic films about rodeo folk go, “Bull,” which Silverstein cowrote with Johnny McAllister, lacks the unique and fascinating characters and stories found in Chloe Zhao’s “The Rider” and the Brazilian drama “Neon Bull.”
Abe’s reunion with a former flame (Yolonda Ross) goes nowhere remarkable.
But Silverstein puts likeable human connection on the screen, without sentimentality; like “Winter’s Bone,” “Wendy and Lucy,” and “Frozen River,” her movie impressively addresses socioeconomic hardship and lack of opportunity. Decent people commit crimes to stay afloat. At 14, Kris has already shelved her dreams.
Silverstein also includes black cowboys (not a common movie sight), and presents an absorbing world in her naturalistic style, whether it’s cowboy camaraderie or partying teens or chirping crickets.
Supporting characters, played by nonprofessional actors, achieve the desired credibility.
Wisely, Silverstein chose a pro, Rob Morgan, to play Abe. He combines physical and mental fatigue with macho cowboyhood and includes shades and nuances in a quietly commanding performance.
Havard, a newcomer, isn’t a powerhouse, but she conveys essential goodness and brings a natural quality to Kris. She and Morgan share understated winning chemistry.
Starring: Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Sara Albright, Yolonda Ross
Written by: Annie Silverstein, Johnny McAllister
Directed by: Annie Silverstein
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Inspired by his new jacket, a middle-aged man reinvents himself, murderously, in “Deerskin” onscreen at the Roxie’s virtual cinema. Those whose funny bones are in sync with the brain of writer-director Quentin Dupieux will be amused by this warped, droll French comedy, but the film comes up short in substance and feeling.
Dupieux (“Rubber”) has an absurdist, eccentric tonal palette, and those qualities season this 77-minute doodle of a movie, whose story involves a midlife crisis.
Jean Dujardin, from “The Artist,” plays bearded, 40-something Georges, who, when introduced, has been dumped by his wife and is driving through France’s countryside. The blazer he discards in a public toilet suggests that he’s led a conventional life. End of backstory.
Georges’ new self emerges during a visit to a used-goods dealer, from whom Georges buys a fringy, rugged-looking deerskin jacket. He also acquires a free camcorder.
Never mind that the jacket is too small for him (a factor Dupieux turns into an understated sight gag) and looks like a wardrobe reject from a second-rate Western. It’s amour fou: Georges falls in love with the garment, which makes him feel cool and virile. He carries on conversations with it and compliments himself, perhaps prophetically, on his “killer style.”
As for the camcorder, Georges, who knows zip about moviemaking, begins shooting footage with it near the alpine-village hotel where he’s staying. His ego inflated, he concocts a ridiculous story about being a professional director shooting a project. Denise (Adele Haenel), a bartender with film-editor aspirations, is intrigued.
Dupieux offers a movie within a movie when Georges begins making an actual movie — an improvised affair about his jacket and quest to rid the world of all other jackets. The plot enters horror terrain when Georges starts committing sinister acts. These become deadly.
Dujardin immerses himself so fully in the role of an improvising psychopath that he gives the absurdity occurring onscreen credibility.
Dupieux’s off-kilter sensibility and deadpan style, whether he’s depicting midlife masculinity, out-of-control auteurism, or small-town dreams, result in funny moments. The talking jacket is loopy fun. Denise’s account of having rearranged the nonlinear plot in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” on her computer is wonderful.
But overall, the movie, deficient in narrative substance and psychological depth, is too slight. Despite Dujardin’s efforts, Georges is an emotionally opaque presence.
Haenel, who brings an almost feral quality to the eager Denise, who becomes Georges’ complicit collaborator, also is excellent, though the film belongs to Dujardin.
Two and a half stars
Starring: Jean Dujardin, Adele Haenel
Written and directed by: Quentin Dupieux
Running time: 1 hour, 17 minutes
Based on the bestseller by French economist Thomas Pinketty, the documentary “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” also at the virtual Roxie, examines the grossly unequal distribution of wealth in the world and details why the rich keep getting richer.
Directed by Justin Pemberton, this information- and opinion-packed sail through history journeys from the 1700s to the present and covers subjects galore: the Industrial Revolution; world wars; communism; banking scandals; the labor movement; Reagan and Thatcher; anti-immigrant fervor; Christmas shopping.
Pinketty and other experts detail how the system is rigged to keep the majority of wealth in the possession of an elite few and compares the current disparity to that of feudal times. We must, he says, tightly control capitalism, through taxes and other means, to keep it from influencing politics and destroying democracy.
Pemberton accompanies the talking heads with TV and movie clips, from “The Grapes of Wrath” to Gordon Gekko.
It all adds up to a non-revelatory but worthwhile and surprisingly watchable blend of an economics lesson, a pop-culture cocktail, and a call to action.
Capital in the 21st Century
Starring: Thomas Pinketty, Kate Williams, Francis Fukuyama, Suresh Naidu
Adapted by: Thomas Pinketty, Justin Pemberton, Matthew Metcalf
Directed by: Justin Pemberton
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes