If you’ve lived in the D.C. area long enough, you’ve probably heard of Larriland Farm. It’s a popular Maryland destinations for families: you can stroll the grounds, picking your own fruits and vegetables. In fact, the farm’s website is Pickyourown.com. It’s meant to be a fun activity, but the premise is more insidious the more you think about it. You’re paying for the privilege to do work that is laborious and low-paying, sort of like cosplay for slavery. That insincere, would-be wholesome quality is at the core of The Biggest Little Farm, a movie that’s too smarmy for its own good.
John Chester started Apricot Lane farms with his wife Molly. They lived in Los Angeles, and were sick of urban life. They yearned for a self-sustaining farm where they could raise everything they ate, whether it’s eggs, produce, or pigs. It turns out – it what should be a surprise to no one – that running a farm is harder than it looks. Directed by Chester himself, the film follows the trials and challenges of getting a farm into a functioning state. They have to deal with coyotes, drought, fire, and invasive species. But to borrow a phrase from Jurassic Park, life finds a way.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with a documentary about farming. In fact, the actual story of Apricot Lane would be fascinating to watch. The problem is that Chester’s only interest is to tell half-truths about his own success. Farming is a costly business, for example, yet Chester completely glosses over his start-up capital and income streams. We also know from interviews that the farm tested his marriage, to the point John and Molly almost separated. You wouldn’t know that from watching this film, since it presents the “Old McDonald” version of what happened.
In formal terms, the documentary is admittedly polished. The footage of the plants and animals are compelling, and Chester does not shy away from some grim realities, like when a coyote gets into a chicken coop. There are obligatory shots of cute baby animals, and dogs shepherding a flock of goats. In between all this, however, is Chester’s cloying voice-over. He wants you to be as impressed with himself as he is. The music by Jeff Beal is about as subtle as getting kicked by a horse. Every scene is scored to engage your heart, not your mind, like a feature-length Hallmark card. Maximum poignancy is the goal, to the point where there is an implied insult of the audience’s intelligence.
Chester’s wants to convey what it means to live in biological harmony. He repeatedly says that every plant and animal has a purpose, and we see how one species behavior allows another to thrive. This kind of push/pull is central to the film, but there is one particularly galling omission. His film talks about the most painful drought California experienced in years, as well as the state’s devastating forest fires, and yet the film never once brings up climate change. That would be too challenging apparently, since it would get in the way of the feel-good vibes this film wants. To put it another way, this documentary is lying to you.
The Biggest Little Farm does not want you to think critically. The second you start asking questions about Chester’s approach, the whole thing starts to fall apart. Maybe it will entertain audiences who don’t think about the food they’re eating. It is ironic, even annoying, how Apricot Lane Farms celebrates organic clean living, without ever really explaining why it’s such a good thing. This film is a bit like what what would happen if Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Grizzly Man, directed a film about himself without an assist from Werner Herzog. As I regarded yet another shot of the same dumb animals, I found myself fantasizing about how Herzog would treat the same raw footage. Audiences would be ready for such an unsparing approach, but John Chester never will be.