John Chester’s Doc ‘The Biggest Little Farm’ Is A Truly Beautiful, Well-Crafted Advertisement [TIFF Review]
Two city folk decide to trade their cosmopolitan lives to build an Edenic farm just outside of Los Angeles in the charming, but overly superficial, documentary “The Biggest Little Farm.” John and Molly Chester’s dream to build a sustainable, multi-crop farm that resists macro-farming techniques in favor of cultivating a natural balance within their environment is noble. However, John, who also serves as director, cinematographer, and co-narrator alongside his wife, often resists drama in favor of bland aphorisms that end up obscuring the hardships present with creating such a diverse farm.
Unhappy with their lives in the city, with Molly working as a personal chef and food blogger and John working as a television cinematographer, they choose to adopt a rescue dog (the subject of one of John’s films) named Todd, whose incessant barking eventually leads to an eviction and, finally, convinces them to realize their dreams, and raise the capital, to buy a farm outside the city. What they end up with, two hundred acres of un-farmable soil, is the beginning of a seven-year journey towards sustainability. They quickly call in a natural farming guru named Alan, whose zen-like approach to farming influences all their decisions, including diversifying their crops to an exponential degree. The sheer amount of crops and livestock they take on to create such a biodiverse environment expectedly leads to a number of problems, as John and Molly struggle to maintain a harmony with all the interacting species.
What is initially set up as a quasi-mystery, beginning with brief glimpses of California wildfires threatening to engulf the farm, is quickly set aside to track the years-long journey of building the farm. Yet, co-narrators John and Molly never truly dive into the struggles that accompanied such a project. Essential questions, including how the funds are raised or even how they bought the farm, are pushed to the periphery, as John and Molly wax poetic on natural cycles and harmonies environments (including a particularly grating animated sequence). What struggles they do include in the film, including a prolonged fight between John and coyotes threatening to kill all their livestock, is framed through this lens. The struggles John has about killing the coyotes are quickly abandoned for another visually stunning, but ultimately empty, montage of animals in their natural habitat.
While this framing is not necessarily a negative, considering how their cheerful outlook made such a splendid lifestyle, it does perhaps make the film too breezy, especially in considering the hardships that go along with sustainable farming, which are never fully addressed. As John and Molly quickly realize the amount of work needed for upkeep, they put out a call on the internet for others to join their cause and help. People do show up, and it appears they stay for a number of years working the farm. Who are these people? Do they get paid? I frankly couldn’t tell you because the film is more interested in framing these moments in the context of the wonder of humanity, and cannot be bothered to sort out the specifics.
This is not to say that Chester’s film is a failure, though. For one, it’s constantly beautiful, his previous work as a cinematographer shining through as he displays wonderful montages of their stunning farm. Additionally, the film’s MVP, no doubt, is their adorable pig, Emma. Constantly overweight and pregnant, she brings levity to the whole situation, wrecking havoc whenever the Chesters try to instill order in her life (such as her demands of an apple cider vinaigrette on her greens).
When the credits roll and viewers are instructed to learn more about Apricot Lane Farms by visiting their website, the entire film becomes reframed as a elongated advertisement not only for their stunning farm, but also a more harmonious lifestyle and it begins to make sense why the film comes across as so breezy. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, as the Chesters have created something truly stunning and want to share it with the world. I’m sold on the lifestyle but as a film, their approach doesn’t make for the most compelling drama. [B-]
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