Documentary, rated PG, 91 minutes, Center for Contemporary Arts, 2.5 chiles
There was a time when you might well have wondered, “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm?” But in this media-saturated day and age, the prospect of leaving the hustle and bustle of the big city for some pastoral idyll seems a more appealing ideal. It was for documentary filmmaker John Chester and his wife, Molly, an organic food blogger and chef.
Here, Chester, who directs, tells a story about a period in his own life, but in a way that suffers from too much polish. Though it’s a well-intentioned documentary about a couple who chuck it all to start anew with the purpose of minimizing their carbon footprint, the notion that most of us can and should follow suit neglects the fact that most of us aren’t as privileged as the Chesters. Unanswered questions lie beneath this life-affirming, motivational can-do story.
The Chester’s upper crust lives as Los Angelinos came to an abrupt end when they were evicted from their apartment because of their rambunctious dog, Todd. They had the wherewithal to just pack up and start fresh on more than 240 acres of pristine land in Moorpark, California, where they founded Apricot Lane Farms. Sure, they scaled down a bit, but it would be nice to know exactly how they managed to fund this venture.
They’re living the dream, at first, and the film presents it as such, until their efforts are disrupted by the seemingly unending hardships they later encounter.
At its most compelling, The Biggest Little Farm highlights the practical solutions they come up with to solve such problems. The meat of the film arrives when it loses its fairy-tale-like gleam — an effect augmented by color-saturated, sun-drenched cinematography — and shows how farm life is back-breaking work.
The key to the couple’s success is in rejuvenating arid land using an experimental biodiversity model championed by Alan York, a farm expert who helps them get started. To sustain the farm, the Chesters rely on biomimicry, creating a diverse ecosystem on a small scale that helps the farm thrive in a natural and organic way.
The documentary finds its heart when it focuses on various animal denizens of the farm, whom we come to know by their personalities. There’s Emma, the pig whose story is heartbreaking, and Mr. Greasy, a rooster who befriends a despairing Emma when her piglets get sold off.
The Biggest Little Farm might have fared better in the hands of another filmmaker. While Chester comes across as genuine, he’s still the focus. His wife is rarely present. A little distance from the subject might have made it all feel a little less canned. There are times when you feel like you’re listening to a sales pitch, which undercuts its inspirational tone and the import of its message.