By Liam Lacey
A first-person documentary about a Los Angeles couple’s decision to move to the country and start a farm overcomes its excessively preciously start to become a genuinely insightful meditation on agriculture, nature, and our precarious relationship to the planet that feeds us.
Shot over eight years, The Biggest Little Farm begins in a small apartment in Santa Monica where John Chester, a TV cameraman and Molly, his culinary blogging wife, get evicted because of their rescue dog, Todd. Because they’re sort of hippies, they take this as a sign. Todd “filled our life with purpose.” Sentimental music score and cutesy animation scenes do not properly prepare us for the moving and serious movie to come.
Although we hear briefly about the Chesters’ attempts to find an “investor,” it remains not entirely clear how they managed to buy a 200-acre spread of property, an hour from the pollution of Los Angeles, and then proceed to spend the next few years pouring money into the barren dirt, installing an elaborate irrigation system, and investing in plants, animals, farm equipment and hired hands.
All of this activity is supervised by a long-haired agricultural consultant — guru might be more accurate — named Alan York, who Molly recruits and whom John initially responds to with some suspicion. York, who died in the course of the film, aspired to something that went beyond “organic” farming to what is known as “biodynamic” farming, which mimics a highly diversified natural biosphere, including cattle, sheep, pigs, ducks, chickens, bees, a vegetable garden, and an orchard with “75 varieties of stone fruit.”
Such farms, we learn, are rare, initially expensive and, after several years of effort and expense, extremely good for the environment. Because all this living goodness attracts unwanted creatures as well including starlings, flies, gophers, coyotes and snails, it’s not always a world of blissful balance. (Whatever Eckart Tolle says about baby animals, maggots are not cute). The goal, says York, is more like finding a level of “comfortable disharmony.”
As a Hollywood model, you might think of The Money Pit or We Bought a Zoo though with its pet animals (Emma the pig and her best friend, Greasy the rooster) and John Chester’s opulent mixture of home movies, drone shots, gorgeous macro-photography and night vision shots, the film has obvious mainstream family appeal.
There’s also a sometimes surprising serious educational message here about how the relationship with nature is a peculiar win-win contest that involves a good deal of drudgery as well as flexible thinking. John, for example, considers it a failure of his idealism when he uses a shotgun to stop the coyote from its nightly slaughter of his chickens. Later, he sees the use of a gun as a failure of creativity: Is there a way of balancing the coyote problem with the gopher infestation? The duck pond dries up around the same time snails infest the orchard. Once again, a eureka moment leading to fat ducks and healthy trees.
From a political point of view, The Biggest Little Farm is savvy in recognizing our common ground. The dangers of global warming and destructive monoculture practices are never mentioned but they’re implicit in a story designed to appeal to the conservative and the liberal in each of us: Back the earth, family values, love of nature and our ongoing struggle to find the “comfortable disharmony” between conservation and progress.
The Biggest Little Farm. Directed by John Chester. Written by John Chester and Mark Monroe. Opens wide May 17.