Warmly engaging “Buck” is a portrait of Buck Brannaman, a trainer whose remarkable way with equines provided a model for “The Horse Whisperer” in both novel and movie forms. Subject is a very likable character whose teaching wisdoms are rooted in the Golden Rule: Having suffered a nightmarish childhood, he sees no reason why man or beast should be schooled in an abusive fashion. Sundance Selects pickup won the U.S. documentary audience award at the fest, and should do particularly well as a broadcast item after further fest play and limited theatrical exposure.
As children, Brannaman and his elder brother (about whom nothing is seen or heard beyond archival clips, oddly) were rope-trick performers skilled enough to land national TV appearances. But after their mother died, an already fearsome father’s violence spun out of control, until the boys were removed to a much healthier foster-care home.
As a young man, Brannaman became a protege of famed natural-horsemanship proponent Ray Hunt, forcing himself to overcome a painful shyness in order to teach the four-day training clinics that now occupy three-quarters of his year. Seeing Brannaman at work around the country is a real pleasure, not just for his animal rapport but for his beautifully cogent, folksy explanations of horse (and human) psychology.
At the one-hour mark, just as the docu seems to be running out of steam, it introduces a present-tense drama in the form of a Chico, Calif., clinic involving a birth-defected 3-year-old colt so dangerously aggressive, Brannaman says it’s become “as close to a predator” as the species can get. His emphasis on cooperation and encouragement in training, rather than fear and punishment, aims to make horse and rider one contentedly functioning body and mind. When the animal is disturbed, he blames the human, telling her she needs to work on her own mental health because “Your horses are a mirror to your soul.”
First feature for Cindy Meehl is confidently assembled, with attractive contributions from the two cinematographers and composer David Robbins. Sundance founder Robert Redford turns up to discuss Brannaman’s role as a key advisor on the briefly excerpted “Whisperer” film. It’s to Brannaman and the docu’s credit that this colorful Hollywood behind-the-scenes glimpse isn’t quite as fascinating as the subject simply doing his everyday job.