Documentaries are most successful, or perhaps most gripping, when the story has a well-developed and intriguing character. Viewers connect with these real people, and what you're watching is more or less their actual lives. Buck, which won the Audience Award for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, follows the life of cowboy Buck Brannaman, who overcame an abusive childhood and went on to become an inspirational horse trainer.
Buck leads a fairly unconventional lifestyle in that he's on the road nine months out of the year conducting four-day horse clinics across the country. On the surface, he embodies the stoic ideal of the all-American cowboy that those of us outside of the horse community didn't know still existed anywhere but in the movies. Buck isn't all chaps, cowboy boots and horse training - he watches Oprah, too.
Where Buck stumbles is in the unanswered questions. The filmmaker interviews a handful of ranch owners, childhood friends and immediate family members, but the one interview missing is the one with Buck's brother, Smokie. Buck and Smokie were beaten by their father and were eventually raised by a foster family, but neither Buck nor any of the others interviewed allude to what happened to Smokie. Additionally, the film leaves holes in the story, often forcing us to wonder how Buck got from one point in his life to another.
The film spends a portion of time on Buck's interaction with Robert Redford during the filming of The Horse Whisperer. It's been said in the press and the film that Buck was the inspiration for the novel and the movie, but no one ever mentions how he came to be such an inspiration. Where did the author find Buck?
But these holes aside, watching Buck handle an unruly horse with grace and patience is mesmerizing. Of course, he's not a magician, so including a three-year-old bucking bronco that just doesn't want to be tamed was an essential in showcasing what Buck does and how he does it.
First-time documentarian Cindy Meehl, a fashion designer turned artist, found an interesting and worthy character in Buck after attending one of his clinics. The film does its job in conveying Buck's transcendence from his bad childhood, showing his delicate methods of horse training go beyond the relationship between man and beast, inferring how we should all treat one another on a human level. Buck has a heartwarming center that makes for a touching and inspirational story.