‘The Biggest Little Farm’ is so uplifting, you’ll check your cynicism at the gate
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know two things: Contempt is alive and well in America. The planet, on the other hand, is dying.
Earlier this month, headlines out of Paris announced sobering, widespread evidence of flora and fauna in rapid decline. Scientists now say that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades.” And the “alpha culprit” of this crisis, according to a recent New York Times editorial, is large-scale farming that willfully or ignorantly destroys the very land it aims to cultivate.
This should be reason enough for you to see “The Biggest Little Farm.” But writer-director-cinematographer John Chester isn’t taking any chances. Just in case you need to be sold on the theatrical entertainment value of a feature-length agri-activism documentary, he’s also packaged his film for mass-market appeal.
Think “An Inconvenient Truth” meets “Babe,” or “The Good Earth” meets a biodiverse “Marley & Me,” with a dash of the Food Network’s “Pioneer Woman” tossed in. Among other things, that means furry critters romping to a folksy soundtrack with tubas and banjos employed unironically. It means circle-of-life lessons and sun-dappled everything. It means check your cynicism and snark at the gate, if you dare.
To which I say: OK, Mr. Chester, you got me.
When I first saw this movie near the end of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I was exhausted and probably starving for a feel-good nibble. That’s how I justified falling hard for the sweet autobiographical chronicle of Chester and his wife, Molly, a food blogger and personal chef, who rescue a dog (Todd), move to the untamed hills outside of Los Angeles, and begin a daunting quest to transform 200 spent acres into a model of responsible commercial farming. My critical guard was down. Yeah, that’s it.
Then I watched “The Biggest Little Farm” again, recently. Same result.
Maybe this time I noticed a few more layers of polish and genial manipulation, but second viewings always risk exposing the magic trick. I was still charmed and still invested in the journey of these intrepid organic entrepreneurs. How can you not love regular people hellbent on doing a difficult job right, led by an oddball guru named Alan York, who calmly surfs every wave of problems that the land and its inhabitants can conjure?
“Diversify, diversify, diversify,” York says. And they do, plowing all of their savings into expensive upgrades and cover crops that only introduce more pests, until one day their endless web of woes becomes a glorious, self-policing habitat.
The soil regenerates. Adorable animals and their less-adorable predators find a way to coexist. And yes, even with so many obstacles, it all might seem too forcibly idyllic at some point. But if you’re looking for proof that our ecosystem can survive pretty much anything we humans can throw at it — a reason to believe that the planet’s scar tissue might not be 100 percent irreversible — this movie is like 91 minutes of the best kind of church.
It’s truly food for the soul.
Sustainable food? Well, the Chesters’ Apricot Lane Farms has evolved into a booming business that regularly supplies produce to LA’s finest restaurants. Its eggs are so coveted that farmers’ market patrons reportedly wait more than an hour to fork over $15 for a dozen. And portly Emma the pig, a breakout star of the film, just got her own children’s book.
You can squint and see slick opportunism, if you want. But in Southern California, where advocacy and celebrity often intertwine, that’s what they call a grassroots success story.
The Biggest Little Farm
Directed by John Chester. Written by Chester and Mark Monroe. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, and Kendall Square. 91 minutes. PG (mild thematic elements: births, deaths, peril, feces).