Published: June 22, 2011
Directed by Cindy Meehl
Opens June 24 at the Charles Theatre
Like beach reads, summer movies rarely promise substance. Compared to the hijinks of The Hangover 2, Buck seems as mild-mannered a Disney flick. But the warm-and-fuzzies emitted by this documentary are the sort that send one out of the theater and into the balmy summer night satisfied and buoyant.
Outfitted in wide-brimmed hat and tasseled leather chaps, Buck Brannaman appears the quintessence of cowboy-hood. Between his Montanan drawl and his genuine demeanor, Buck blends the air of Gary Cooper with John Wayne’s cadence.
He possesses a preternatural understanding of horses. A horse will follow him around a ring without so much as a rope’s tug, and he can wordlessly will a pony into a trailer. He advocates a 90 percent mental, 10 percent physical horse-breaking philosophy—an approach, he says, that will improve one’s interactions with bipeds too. Buck crisscrosses the country for nine months each year, leading four-day clinics for “people with horse problems,” living out of a trailer, lovingly calling home to check in with his wife and daughter, and partaking in twilight powwows at day’s end.
Producer/director Cindy Meehl interlaces footage of the clinics with Buck’s biography, recorded in interviews, old photographs, and TV-show tapings. A backwoods child star, Buck (or Buckshot, as he was known) shyly enjoyed trick-roper fame under the authoritarian reign of his abusive father. Unlike the tired tortured-childhood-begets-dysfunction plot, however, Buck shows a sunnier outcome that attests to human resiliency and compassion. It achieves this sans sap and with doses of Buck’s deadpan humor. Meehl intuitively knows when to scale back on the commentary and let the camera take over; when Buck is astride a horse, you want nothing more than to watch without interruption.
With shots of grassy hillocks and sun-drenched mountainsides, rambunctious horses and plaid-clad cowpokes, Buck has the visual trappings of a Western. But beyond its aesthetic appeal, the documentary artlessly melds aspects of American culture into a coherent synthesis: from his child-star beginnings to his current occupation as a cowboy; from the old-fashioned family values (seen in Buck’s interactions with his mother, wife, and daughter) to the newfangled pop-psychologizing that he often uses to explain a horse’s behavior; from the campfire-like congregations at which Buck performs rope tricks to the perpetual road trip he makes in his trailer. Buck brings to mind the fabled slower, more wholesome America of a bygone era, but it’s decidedly set in the fast-paced present—in a society where it’s perfectly normal to trek from North Carolina to Maine to hold a horse clinic. Meehl captures this dichotomy subtly, in such a way that it wouldn’t seem to need reconciling of any sort. It just is. Her documentary, like Buck’s effect on a horse, is almost therapeutic.
Truly, Buck’s close cousin in the summer marquee is Midnight in Paris. As Woody Allen’s film inspires a yen for cobblestone side streets, Meehl’s movie triggers a craving for a specific Americana—the part with rugged cowboys, happy endings, and pretty sunsets. Buck proves that’s not entirely mythical.
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