The Biggest Little Farm (PG)
In the part of the country I write this review from, we haven't at the time of writing had rain of more than one millimetre or for longer than 30 seconds for three months.
So watching a documentary about a pair of city-slickers making an organic farm triumph over the odds, resplendent with 90 minutes of imagery of lush green pastures, feels akin to watching science fiction. Like watching the new Star Wars.
American filmmaker and cinematographer John Chester documents his own mid-life tree-change with a story that begins with he and wife Molly adopting a rescue dog, Todd. The dog won't stop barking when left alone, and the pair begin looking for some acreage to move to before Todd gets them evicted. They discover a failed farm in California's wine country, Apricot Lane Farm, and not only come up with a business plan to manage it, but convince a bunch of investors to buy it with them.
I'd like a whole 90-minute documentary just on this part. I'd love to know how to convince someone else to fund my implausible dreams of early retirement. With their funding secured, John and his wife Molly engage Alan York, a farming consultant, who introduces them to biodynamic farming. Alan's ideas appeal to their inner-city concepts of what farming ought to be like, but the pair are in for years of hard lessons as they follow Alan's plans.
The film's narrative follows John and Molly's learning journey. Most viewers will know as little about farming as this pair, which allows us to learn along with the family up on the screen. The narrative is linear - we follow each learning step as they convert 33 barren hectares to a farm "in harmony with nature".
Some narrative threads fall by the wayside. Molly is a culinary blogger and you'd think that pairing a chef with food at its very source would be a great driver for the story. But bigger personalities rise up and demand attention.
John Chester is a nature photographer by trade and so the film is beautifully shot and his camera captures the whole cycle of life. There's a love story between a pig and a chicken, a love story between a couple and their farming mentor, plagues and infestations, health issues and death, bushfire and drought.
Vegans beware, this film doesn't come with a "No animals were harmed during the making of this film" disclaimer as most dramatic features do. During the course of the film, coyotes get into the chickens, ducks get into the snails, one of the central characters - Ellie the pig - has two litters and we're pretty sure we know where they all end up. It's exactly what you expect in a film about farming, and it might make for some good family discussions if you wanted to bring your younger brood along to a screening.
While the stakes are quite high for the film's animal characters, the stakes are never fully explained for the humans. Yes, we see farmers around them succumb to drought and fire, but while the Chesters experience multiple years of failure (or experimentation, depending on how you look at it), we never learn how much money they raised through their investors, how much of it props these failures up, whether any profits are ever made or distributed. I particularly mention this as the whole thing is presented as a bucolic dream, and I'd hate any viewer to throw their present life away to pursue a similarly romantic dream without the same kind of funding.
Deep pockets and big dreams aside, this is an aspirational film fuelled with a positive energy that is infectious.