Cindy Meehl‘s wise and winning Buck, winner of the 2011 Sundance Audience Award for Best Documentary, played yesterday afternoon at South by Southwest. It seems at first like a straightforward portrait of Buck Brannaman, a renowned horse-trainer who was the real-life inspiration for The Horse Whisperer (both the book and the film). But it gradually becomes more of a meditative heart-warmer about healing and parenting.

Like Brannaman himself, with whom I had an agreeable chat after yesterday’s screening, Buck has a spiritual, settled-down vibe.

At first I had a notion that Buck was just a nice emotional atmosphere film that didn’t have any wider echoes or implications, but I gradually began to see that it’s as much about healing humans as horses.

As it reveals more and more about Brannaman’s work and personal life, Buck passes along lessons about getting past childhood trauma and correcting parental errors and ways to heal…all that good stuff. The fact that youngish horses are the recipients of said therapy doesn’t obscure the fact that many if not most of Brannaman’s teachings apply to troubled kids and teens also, and for that matter (in theory at least) troubled adults.

Buck Brannaman, Buck director Cindy Meehl during our interview following yesterday afternoon’s screening.

Feeling unloved and ganged-up-upon and pressured isn’t a good thing for any man or beast. We all just need to chill and feel safe and unthreatened, and to not be so afraid of making a mistake that we can’t move. What I got from the film is that if all afraid, angry and unhappy people had someone like Brannaman to calm them down and steer them in healthier, more positive directions, the world would be a much calmer and better place.

The irony and ultimate lesson of Buck is that Brannaman was himself raised by a highly abusive and alcoholic dad. He and his older brother were adopted by foster parents when it became evident what they’d been going through, and that plus getting into horse training and discovering an exceptional empathy and communion with horses led to Buck’s becoming centered and secure and ending the abuse cycle. Brannaman is happily married and by all appearances a good dad.

Buck will open theatrically in June via Sundance Selects, and then become available via on Demand and cable and DVD/Bluray.

Meehl is from Redding, Connecticut, which is just a town or two away from my high-school stomping grounds in Wilton. So that was another soother.