Movie Review: Buck (PG)


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Length: 88 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

Age Appropriate for: 8+. The most distressing moments come when Dan “Buck” Brannaman discusses the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father; the explanation of what happened to him and his brother may be too emotionally harrowing for very young viewers. Similarly intense are some bloody effects of wild horses acting against human wranglers and horses being abused with inhumane training tactics.

Break out My Little Pony and get ready to talk about the meaning of family. The documentary ‘Buck’ isn’t flawless, but its look into the life of a real horse whisperer is intriguing and affecting.

By Roxana Hadadi

Sitting down to watch a documentary with your children may seem like a bad idea. Wouldn’t a film lacking animation or 3-D bore kids, unable to hold their amusement-seeking attention? I would say yes, if only “Buck,” about the life of horse trainer Dan “Buck” Brannaman, wasn’t so intriguing and compelling.

If you or your children have ever owned a My Little Pony, see “Buck” immediately. The 88-minute film follows the life of Brannaman, a horse authority who inspired Nicholas Evans’ 1995 novel “The Horse Whisperer” and who was the lead equine consultant for Robert Redford’s film adaptation of the novel. A calm, solemn man, Brannaman at first just seems like a nice guy un-ironically wearing a cowboy hat and traveling around the country being nice to horses misunderstood by their owners. As the film progresses, however, we learn more about his troubled childhood, his brushes with fame and his maturation and career path, elements that enlighten us about Brannaman’s compassion for horses and his empathetic view about their existence.

“People bring a lot of baggage to the table,” Brannaman says about horse owners he meets, but it’s Brannaman’s trauma we understand most. How his youth scarred him and eventually made him a better man are the most tear-inducing parts of “Buck” for both children and parents. A film like this, which very emotionally lays out the way some can mistreat their children and others can save them, should raise some beneficial discussions about the meaning of family for you and your kids.

Director Cindy Meehl’s first film, “Buck” begins with its subject on the road: For nine months of the year he’s hosting horse clinics on ranches and in various cities across the U.S., helping a variety of horse owners better understand their colts, or male horses younger than 4. Most horse owners “break” colts with cruelty and inhumane treatment, Brannaman says, but his approach — cultivated through years of work with horse trainer Ray Hunt, who in turn was inspired by brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance — falls in line with the natural horsemanship movement. Talk to horses and treat them gently instead of beating them, Brannaman says; “I’m helping horses with people problems,” he cracks. More often than not, it seems pretty true.

It’s a lonely life, driving around, eating unfulfilling meals at Dairy Queen and truck stops, awaiting calls and visits from his wife Mary and daughter Reata (she’s the youngest, we’re informed, but nothing is said about any older children). But Brannaman is a simple man, one who after years of time to think has finally understood and appreciated his place in the world. Through interviews with him, his friends and his clients, we learn about his childhood as a trick roper, appearing on national TV and going pro at age 6. It would seem like an ideal, idyllic childhood, but a family tragedy and his father’s violence shaped Brannaman in extraordinary ways. “You have to be a sensitive person” to understand horses like Brannaman does, says Gwynn Turnbull Weaver, creator of The Californios Ranch Roping and Stock Horse Contest. “Sometimes they’re tortured souls, you know?”

But how Brannaman turned his pain and trauma into something positive and productive is what’s most inspirational about “Buck,” and also the most mysterious. About half the documentary is footage from his clinics throughout the years, and his relationship with horses is phenomenal: He doesn’t seem to urge, coax or beg them to do anything, but his quiet, straightforward methods always bring the horses in line with what he wants. “Everything you do with a horse is a dance,” he says; they gallop, shuffle back and forth, stop and go whenever, heeding his every wish. It’s disappointing, though, that the documentary gives no information about his methods or tactics. Meehl didn’t need to divulge Brannaman’s secrets, but some kind of discussion about how he developed his approach would be interesting. There’s none whatsoever.

His interactions with others, though, are engaging enough. From his shy smile when sitting next to his foster mother to his loving, caring nature with his wife and daughter, it’s clear there are countless layers to this man. “All I ever wanted to be was a cowboy,” he says of his childhood dreams, but obviously Brannaman has become much more than the stereotypical horse wrangler. His aura is only furthered by what Meehl doesn’t tell us, but his humanity is highlighted especially toward the end of the film, as he shows rare anger toward a horse owner who he believes has egregiously mistreated a colt. “Life’s too damn short,” he says to her brusquely. “Maybe there’s some things for you to learn about you.”

The film isn’t all Brannaman’s lectures and doctrines; there are some really amusing moments, such as when he pulls out some rope tricks to entertain a clinic crowd, and some scarier ones with that rogue colt near the end of the film. There is no cursing, but the discussion of what happened between Brannaman and his father, some bloody effects of horses acting out, and diagrams and pictures of mistreated horses may be too emotionally intensive for younger viewers.

“Buck” doesn’t give up all of Brannaman’s secrets, and suffers from Meehl’s hesitance to dig deeper into his method. But the documentary works in cracking the man’s outer shell, providing deeper insight into how a person’s childhood can affect their interactions with any person, or any animal, around them. For young children already beginning to understand the influence of their actions, “Buck” is a pleasant transition into greater understanding the importance of who we are, what we do and why our choices matter — even when it seems they’re outside of our control.

“Buck” is playing in limited release in the Washington, D.C., area. Showtimes are available at the Bethesda Row Cinema in Bethesda, Md., and at AMC Loews Shirlington 7 in Arlington, Va.