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The Biggest Little Farm
First run Airline

While simultaneously cultivating a 200-acre farm, Emmy winning television director John Chester creates a first-person documentary about how he and his foody wife Molly leave their life in Santa Monica to pursue a long-held dream of growing their own crops. By doing this, they hope to prove by example that the old-school traditional approach to farming is the best way to treat the land, animals, and human beings. It’s an inspirational story that seems to confirm its thesis—if, that is, you take Chester’s word for it while you marvel at all his stunning images. But a great documentary, or even a halfway decent one, requires far more than pretty pictures and simplistic narration. And, for a movie that champions an organic approach to life, this is a dishearteningly contrived work. 

Covering eight years of setbacks and successes in 92 minutes, The Biggest Little Farm barely feels like a documentary at all. Instead, it plays like a lengthy power-point presentation narrated by Chester utilizing some of the most gorgeous nature photography you could ever expect from a film about American farming. Using all the tools of his years as a wildlife cinematographer—time-lapse photography, high-frame-rate macrophotography, aerial drone shots, fixed cameras with night vision—Chester makes every inch of his farm and every aspect of his adventure seem like it takes place in an actual paradise on Earth. But Chester’s skills as a videographer do not translate to those of a storyteller.

The movie is a literal list of events with its folksy director/narrator essentially saying, “This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened,” and “We had this problem, so we did this; we had that problem, so we did that; and with each step it all made us feel a profound sensation.” None of the stress, the joy, the awe, or any of the human drama that the film’s protagonists must have felt while undertaking this grand experiment translates to the viewer. We only see and experience surfaces.

The Biggest Little Farm raises more questions than it asks or answers. What’s presented on screen about this experiment in natural farming possesses an irresponsible lack of detail and is utterly devoid of context. It opens via the textbook technique of previewing what we presume will be the most suspenseful sequence of the film, which we also assume might eventually connect this individual tale into the larger context of Global Warming—(spoiler, neither is the case). We then go to the beginning of the story where a generic mix of home movies and cutesy animation give us the central couple’s history.

This backstory includes how the simple throwing of a party with a little homemade presentation about their big dream, leads to some generous investors granting them what (based on what we see during the first few years) must have been a substantial amount of cash. How much might it cost to undertake such a project? That’s not an important detail in a movie like this— this is an inspirational picture that doesn’t want to concern viewers with such inconvenient truths. The cost of this mammoth undertaking is only the first vital piece of information Chester deems irrelevant that any responsible documentarian would consider necessary for a film to be meaningful beyond ideological wish-fulfillment or a feature-length commercial for his farm.

Over the course of the picture, we’re introduced to some lovable supporting animal players, notably a dog named Todd and a pig named Emma. We also meet the soil expert the Chesters hire to teach them about sustainable farming and help them bring the dead land they purchase back to life. The expert, Alan York, is just the kind of quirky character that can make a documentary distinctive and memorable. But, like all the people in this movie, York barely registers as an entity. We do, however, witness the fruits of his philosophy. He demonstrates to the novice farmers that the key to reviving their soil is regenerative agricultural practices that emulate the natural functions of bio-diverse ecosystems. York helps the Chesters confirm a belief system already well ingrained within them—that nature provides a solution for every problem, and the role of humans is the restoration and proper husbandry of the ecological balance and circle of life.

We’re told most other farmers think this approach is crazy, but we’re never told why. Nor do we see or hear from any other farmers. We do meet a couple of longtime farmhands who’ve tended to this land for decades, but we get no sense of them as people and no idea of how they view their work or their new bosses. Likewise, we don’t get to know anyone in the sizable staff of young folks who come to work the land alongside the Chesters. Are these all volunteers looking for some kind of "authentic" life experience? How long do they work (and live?) on the farm?

Every narrative turn and emotional beat of this story is conveyed via the monotonous voice-over explanations of Chester, a couple of brief interview clips of York, and by snatches of conversation overheard in the vérité-style footage. The Chesters, and everyone else in the movie, are so aware of the camera and the narrative requirements of the film that nearly every utterance we hear feels like it’s spoken for our benefit rather than something they would organically say to each other. Some lines are so shamelessly explanatory I’m convinced they were recorded in post-production.

The film is designed to be a crowd-pleaser, but its lack of depth shortchanges the project the Chesters took on—which itself is worthy of great respect. I’d love to know how scalable their traditional farming approach might be. Could California’s massive agricultural industry move away from factory farming and re-embrace these vastly healthier and more sustainable practices? The Biggest Little Farm implies that the natural approach it advocates for enabled the Chesters’ farm to withstand a record drought and devastating wildfires. Will it survive the coming climate crisis too? Maybe if they just continue to dream big enough everything will work out.

Twitter Capsule:
First-person doc about a couple who ditch their LA lifestyle to create a sustainable farm is woefully short on details, context, and drama. For a film that champions an organic approach to life, it's a dishearteningly contrived work.

Directed by John Chester
Produced by John Chester and Sandra Keats

Written by John Chester and Mark Monroe

With: John Chester, Molly Chester, and Matthew Pilachowski

Cinematography: John Chester, Mallory Cunningham, Benji Lanpher, Chris Martin, and Kyle Romanek
Editing: Amy Overbeck
Music: Jeff Beal

Runtime: 91 min
Release Date: 10 May 2019
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1