We Bought a Farm – The Biggest Little Farm

Moorpark, California is located about 50 miles northwest of Los Angeles. It is in this rural community of just over 30,000 that John and Molly Chester established Apricot Lane Farms in 2010, a venture borne out of necessity after the couple was evicted from their Santa Monica apartment due to the noise caused by their rescue dog, Todd, who barks incessantly when they’re not around.

Over the course of just under a decade, John and Molly transformed the disused land that became Apricot Lane Farms into a successful, fully integrated “traditional” farm (i.e. not corporate), where wildlife, crops, and livestock operate in a symbiotic balance. It is indeed a triumphant story, and The Biggest Little Farm, written, directed, filmed, and narrated by John, is the chronicle of that progress.

It’s an unabashed crowd-pleaser of a documentary, presenting just about every challenge the couple faced on this farm that was Molly’s dream, and every eventual solution that presented itself, either through creative innovation or the luck of nature’s draw (the film opens with footage of wildfires that came dangerously close to destroying the farm, but the winds changed and blew the flames away from their property). The transformation of the land from dead soil to vibrantly colored agricultural paradise is impressive enough of a visual on its own. And it has to be said, the animals on the farm are beyond adorable, especially Todd (who is a very good boy), a breeding sow named Emma, and her erstwhile uninvited roommate, a rejected rooster named Mr. Greasy.

The human side of the equation is about learning and adapting to the variables of farm life, as both John and Molly are complete neophytes. They hire an aged hippie named Alan as a consultant, who guides them on not just the ins and outs of maintaining and reinvigorating the land, but also in the idea of communing with nature. His character is one of the many bright spots in the film.

It’s this learning process that makes the film a victory over adversity, injected with good humor throughout. John delivers Emma’s first litter of piglets, more than twice the normal size, and in a mix of exacerbation and pure joy, buries his head in his hands, unwashed and full of pig placenta. When an infestation of snails threatens to devour their various fruit trees (the ambitious duo plants over 200 different types of crops in addition to livestock) and the duck pond they built becomes too murky, one problem ends up solving the other, as John lets the ducks into the orchard, where they seem to gleefully feast on the mollusks.

There are many moments like this, where a major problem shows up, threatening the very survival of the project, and yet they persevere. It can sometimes border on cliché, and this is where the film suffers just a bit. Being a former nature photographer for TV shows, John shoots the film as if it’s something to be narrated by Sir David Attenborough, including tons of slow-motion shots of hummingbirds and bees flapping their wings. He also narrates in a very self-congratulatory way, almost preaching about his and Molly’s superiority when their farm survives mudslides while other, more stupid farmers, lost everything. He also tends to frame every challenge like some grand philosophical query, which comes off as just a bit pretentious. It’s not nearly to Terrence Malick levels, but still.

When it comes right down to it, this film really boils down to a 90-minute commercial for the farm itself, including links to their website and footage of tour groups. It’s so overly positive that at times it plays like We Bought a Zoo, but for agriculture. John carries the film with an air of prestige that it doesn’t quite earn, because again, this whole thing can be reduced to an ad with a captive audience.

But to dismiss the film on those cynical grounds would be a disservice, because no matter how many back pats John and Molly give themselves, what they did in eight years is nothing short of amazing. Yes, you can point out that being TV professionals in Santa Monica affords them more economic opportunity than most others (a brief animated segment shows how friends of friends gave them seed money, which is sadly never revisited to see how their investors feel). You can point out the fact that John completely glosses over climate change as a huge factor in the very adversity they face most of the time (drought, mudslides, dead soil, wildfires, etc.). These are all valid critiques.

However, even if this weren’t a thinly-veiled commercial at times, it misses the point to bring up those seemingly necessary ideas. This story is about how dreams can come true with the right combination of hard work and luck, and in that vein, it’s hard to shit on their accomplishment. I think the film would have resonated just a bit more if they had an objective director handling all of John’s duties, because even if that outsider captured John and Molly at their more jaded moments, I think there would be enough genuine interest to see the film, welcome more visitors, and sell better at farmer’s markets all the same. Hell, it might even improve those numbers because the audience would be able to see the true highs and lows rather than the most happy-go-lucky version of events.

But in the end, those self-aggrandizing flaws aren’t enough to prevent me from recommending the film. Just like Won’t You Be My Neighbor? last year, a movie like The Biggest Little Farm is needed just so we can see something truly joyous and positive in our current sociopolitical dystopia. We need reminders that sometimes, things really do work out and hard work pays off. Is this film on Neighbor‘s level? Absolutely not. But it’s still a welcome change of pace in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with putting a smile on the audience’s face. I mean, isn’t that the point of all entertainment?

Grade: B

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? If you’ve ever experienced farm life, how does this movie compare? Can you watch the scene of Emma giving birth without counting Disney Dalmatians? Let me know!

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