The Biggest Little Farm is a beautiful, hopeful film.
Climate change, corporate farming and the politicization of both have made nature documentaries play increasingly like either fantasy or apocalyptic horror. This, and the surplus of HGTV-style television programming showing city folk doing their best “Green Acres” impersonations, leaves little room for a documentary about well-to-do Los Angelites moving into the country to start a biodiverse farm to succeed. Yet The Biggest Little Farm does. Filmmaker John Chester, who writes, directs and is also the subject of the film, makes the story work by allowing both the good and bad to play out in equal tandem without indulging in extreme examples of either end of the spectrum.
Chester gets things moving with a timely and dramatic jolt by starting with the 2018 California wildfire crisis, which put Chester and his wife Molly’s farm, by that point a 10-year project, in great danger. Things flash back from there, and Chester shows the farm’s cute, idealistic beginnings and then moves forward from there. Chester’s experience as a documentary cinematographer works wonders, as frequent and stunning close-ups of nature at work give The Biggest Little Farm a level of visual bombast that many slice-of-life documentaries lack.
These peeks into the ground-level work (literally) of the farm are the real draw. Chester doesn’t avoid the real or the ugly, and the circle of life is on full display here. Life and death play out in beautiful high definition, mostly – and thankfully – without much meaning of life preaching. The narration (also provided by Chester) focuses, rather, on the often-overwhelming amount of work and education required to run an ethical and sustainable farm. Special attention is paid to the logistics of doing this in California, which even before the fires had suffered a number of natural, political and economic crises in recent years.
And the best nitty-gritty moments are given to the farm’s nonhuman residents. Chester’s camera indulges in plenty of canine glee, chicken coop drama, diva pigs and bug architecture. And while the Chesters have their own Yoda, a farm whisper named Alan York who appears frequently to dispense wisdom and cheer, much of the farm’s success is attributed, correctly, the hardworking critters and their miraculous ability to grow and multiply. Life and death are shown respectfully but practically, and the film manages to tiptoe that fine balance between making the audience feel and milking dead animals for tears.
Though the lack of overly-intricate farm speak helps in terms of accessibility, it sometimes seems as if the Chesters’ success is the result of luck and privilege rather than hard work and good planning. In truth, it is probably a combination of all of those things, but The Biggest Little Farm is short enough that some more technical information could have been incorporated without slowing things down.
And while The Biggest Little Farm is refreshingly authentic, there are moments, particularly with some of the older footage, that feel just a bit staged. This is obviously side effect of documentary the filming – the question of why these personal moments are being filmed in the first place, and how they can be genuinely real when a camera is on, and the Chesters get better as it as time moves forward.
All in all, The Biggest Little Farm is a beautiful, hopeful film. It’s a breath of fresh air in an increasingly cynical field, which is a particular achievement given the sad state of the environment and the fraught world of farming at the moment. By using his considerable skills with the camera to capture the work of his farm’s smallest members, John Chester makes a funny, real and occasionally magical film.