Producers: Monique Walton, Bert Marcus, Heather Rae, Ryan Zacharias and Audrey Rosenberg   Director: Annie Silverstein   Screenplay: Annie Silverstein and Johnny McAllister   Cast: Rob Morgan, Amber Havard, Yolanda Ross, Sara Albright, Keeli Wheeler, Keira Bennett, Reece McClure and Steven Boyd   Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Grade:  C+

The good thing about Annie Silverstein’s film is that while it follows a fairly familiar template—the life of a troubled adolescent is altered by an encounter with an old person—the treatment doesn’t follow the predictable beats.  Unfortunately, in a way that’s also the bad news, because in rejecting formula the movie becomes rather shapeless and meandering.  You can applaud the decision to be different without finding the result particularly enlivening or enlightening.

Amber Harvard plays Kris, an outwardly stoic fourteen-year old living with her grandmother Marjorie (Keeli Wheeler) and younger sister Chance (Keira Bennett) in a small South Texas town while the girls’ mother Janis (Sara Albright) is locked up, presumably on drug charges.  Marjorie suffers from diabetes, and Kris is often called on to administer her medication, as well as taking care of Chance.  They also occasionally visit Janis in the slammer.

Marjorie is a pretty tough taskmaster.  She objects to Kris’s hanging out with the local kids down at the river, especially when she allows her sister to swim in the dirty water.  Marjorie also dislikes Kris’s dog, which makes a racket and comes into the house.

The dog also causes trouble with Abe (Rob Morgan), a grumpy fellow who lives down the street.  He complains loudly that the mutt has attacked the chickens he keeps in a coop behind his house, and warns the girl to put a stop to it.

But Kris doesn’t listen.  Anxious to ingratiate herself with the other kids, she breaks into Abe’s place and hosts a party for them there when the old man’s away.  He comes back unexpectedly, of course, and catches her in the act.  Though Kris would prefer juvie, Marjorie arranges for the matter to be dropped if her granddaughter agrees to help Abe out around his house. 

They don’t begin as friends, but the two gradually warm to one another, and Kris becomes fascinated by Abe’s work at the local rodeo.  Once a professional bull rider himself, he now serves as a protector, a guy in clown makeup who intervenes to distract the animal when a rider is thrown.  Kris becomes fascinated and decides she wants to become a rider too, and Abe, who helps in the training of younger men, allows her to take a spin on the “mechanical bull” he sometimes uses.

But there’s another man who occasionally enters Kris’s orbit—Billy (Steve Boyd), a sleazy ex-boyfriend of her mother’s who’s also a drug-dealer.  He induces her to sell for him, and the irony is of her pushing the kinds of pills on which Abe is dependent after so many years on the circuit is obvious, though not over-emphasized.  Nevertheless Kris’s decision about where to hide her stash causes a rupture in her relations with both men, leaving her own future deeply uncertain. 

Silverstein, collaborating with co-writer Johnny McAllister, tells this story without resorting to easy sentimentality, creating characters whose lives seem authentically devoid of promise and surroundings that exude a bleak hopelessness.  Her approach is naturalistic, with an appropriately dingy production design (by Meredith Lippincott) accentuated by the unhurried, hand-held camerawork of Shabier Kirchner and lapidary editing of Miguel Schverdfinger and Todd Holmes. William Ryan Fritch’s score is unostentatious as well.

The performances strive for realism too.  Havard is quiet and unshowy, and while Morgan is more extroverted, he avoids falling into a crude crotchety routine.  And except for Boyd, who comes on rather strong as nasty Billy, the other actors are generally subdued and convincing.

While one can admire the understated quality Silverstein brings to “Bull,” the film achieves less of an emotional impact than one might expect of such a coming-of-age tale.