'Buck' is the kind of sweet, easily enjoyable film that grows on you. It might focus on the inspiration for Robert Redford's 'The Horse Whisperer,' but it doesn't have the Hollywood buzz. It doesn't have the media fervor of documentaries like fellow man + animal feature 'Project Nim.' It doesn't have the marketing whirlwind Morgan Spurlock and 'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.' What it does have is heart, and a lot of it, as both an exploratory piece about one man's rise from abuse to happiness and success, and as a film that feeds on our interest in the communicative divide between human and animal.
There's a certain awe-filled curiosity that follows animal whisperers as they magically cross that separation and communicate effectively. In recent years, that curiosity has only increased as Cesar Millan ('The Dog Whisperer') travels across the U.S. taming the meanest and most unruly of dogs. 'Buck' follows Dan Brannaman as he travels across the U.S., teaching horse owners how to kindly and compassionately train their horses to obey even the most minute commands.
What's truly magical about 'Buck' is how Brannaman's life mirrors the horses he trains. Buck was a child trick roping star, appearing in television commercials when he was only 6 years old, but behind the glitzy curtain, Buck and his roper brother suffered considerable abuse at the hands of their father. Ultimately, he was freed from the abuse, grew up in a nurturing foster family and learned how to apply his story of abuse to the horses that crossed his path -- using patience and compassion to train instead of violence. In his mind, it's helping horses with people problems.
His outlook on life has served him well. The camera follows Buck as he travels from town to town, trying to eradicate the mindset that you must "break" a horse, teaching owners how to truly understand their steeds. Yet it's more than just obedience training. Brannaman is so in tune with horses that his work with them seems like a carefully planned ballet. His horse feels his intent with even the slightest of gestures; they follow him like a mellow, patient dog.
It's the sort of documentary that would seem to appeal to a select few -- the audiences enamored with the dust of the west, horse lovers or survivors of abuse. But first-time director Cindy Meehl understands her subject so thoroughly that Brannaman's charisma and heart oozes from every film cell. It's as if Meehl is using Buck's techniques in the director's chair.
'Buck' is not hard-hitting or questioning; the camera loves its subject. Yet through this love, Meehl manages to aptly tie it all to relatable human experience. The film transcends genre expectations and becomes a documentary as much about life as it is about horse whispering.
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