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'Buck' a documentary with plainspoken power

The subject is Buck Brannaman, a real-life horse whisperer, and his story has everyman appeal.

January 24, 2011|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, subject of the documentary "Buck," walks the streets of Park City, Utah, where the film is being shown at Sundance.
Horse whisperer Buck Brannaman, subject of the documentary "Buck,"… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Park City, Utah — Sometimes a film comes along that answers a question that you didn't realize you had. At the Sundance Film Festival this year, that movie is "Buck," an exceptional slice of Americana about the charismatic real-life horse whisperer, an earthy, soft-spoken philosopher who can tame troubled souls, be they man or beast.

The question is a significant one: Can a documentary cross so many cultural, geographic and demographic lines that it could become a mainstream, mass-market phenomenon, all without a political agenda or shock value?

If ever a documentary had that everyman potential, it is "Buck," a film with a sensibility like "The Blind Side" that some might underestimate for its plainspoken power. This is one of those quintessential up-by-the-bootstraps stories about a man who actually wears boots that have straps. And in Buck Brannaman, it has the kind of unsung hero that America loves to love. Of all the movie screenings I've been to in the festival's first four days, no film has gotten as passionate and as extended a standing ovation as "Buck."

I first realized there was something deep going on when the tough guy in rapper chic next to me was wiping away tears at one particularly intense moment when Buck tries to gentle a horse so wild it attacked another trainer in the ring. There's also plenty of humor, with laughter rippling across the house at the homespun wisdom that seems as natural to Buck as sitting on a horse. But what makes this film likely to find purchase in so many quarters is Buck's appealing Mark Twain brand of intelligence.

The movie came to the festival without a distributor but as of press time was sorting through multiple offers — a coup for first-time director Cindy Meehl, whose career began in fashion design and moved into art. "Buck" is anchored by interviews with his friends, family and horse owners changed by his methods, cut in between training sessions with horses and riders that keep Buck on the road most of the year.

Meehl and her team culled through 300 hours of footage to piece together Buck's story of the father who beat him, the foster parents who raised him and the horses who saved him. It's a hard-work-pays-off saga and includes not just a career, but a wife and kids. Daughter Reata has almost as much of a way with horses as her dad and spends summer vacations on the road with him.

As beautiful as the horses are — and there are many breathtaking shots, thanks to cinematographers Guy Mossman and Luke Geissbuhler — Meehl understood that it was the man and how he relates to all manner of creatures that would carry the day. It helps that Buck, who lives in Sheridan, Wyo., is truly a character, Marlboro Man tough (but seemingly without the vices) and with a dry wit that crackles. His observations on Hollywood machinations during the making of the 1998 feature film "The Horse Whisperer," where he was Robert Redford's consultant of choice, are priceless.

But beyond that, Buck's story seems right for the times: a decent man whose common sense cuts to the heart of the matter, an ordinary guy who's made an extraordinary life despite the odds. A guy who works hard for the money. The kind of story that would play anywhere, but definitely in Peoria.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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