In a world where success can seem like it’s one well-received Instagram post away, being reminded of the thankless hours, the countless fails and the unrelenting hard work it is to build something from nothing is quite a wake-up call. John Chester, director of The Biggest Little Farm, and his wife Molly couldn’t have known what an up-hill climb they had ahead of them when they decided to launch an independent farm in 2011. But nearly a decade later, their 400 acres are a thriving, self-sustaining ecosystem of crops, animals and wildlife that proves what fruits can come from good, honest labor.
Making its way into theaters just now after a long festival run (it world premiered at Telluride last September), the documentary beautifully marries a very personal story with the broad implications of living and working in holistic, thoughtful ways. It’s an inspiration in many ways, watching them go from novices fumbling their way through each new challenge to seasoned farmers who know the land as well as they know themselves is a treat, and though some moments of the film are a bit more rough than others, it’s nevertheless a wholly charming documentary.
Among the less-polished segments of the film is the very beginning, as Chester musters all his filmmaking creativity to visually present a part of the story that took place well before he (or anyone) thought to start filming. The set-up is straightforward, and photos and animations patch together to lay the groundwork for how the idea for Apricot Lane Farms even came together. Anyone who’s ever started a business or otherwise gone out on a limb to chase their dream will identify with the Chester’s emotional journey here, equal parts euphoria and terror. Are we actually doing this? We’re actually doing this!
Once the film settles into footage on the farm with John (and occasionally Molly) as narrator, it finds a comfortable groove as a diary of the farm’s growing pains and progress. With Alan York, a lifelong agriculturist, as their mentor, the Chesters have an ambitious goal for their land: to create a sustainable ecosystem within five years where everything from the soil to the treetops draw from and contribute to everything else in the space. That they accomplish such a feat at all is no spoiler; there’s nothing about The Biggest Little Farm that wants you to think it has anything but a happy ending. But the film is more concerned with the journey than the destination, anyways.
At just an hour and half long, the journey isn’t particularly long, but it is entertaining. In addition to all their work reviving the land, the Chesters soon invite half a dozen different farm animals into their space, learning how to tend them all on the fly. The star of the menagerie is a massive pig named Emma, who becomes a mama in one of the film’s most endearing scenes. The piglets just keep coming…and coming, and John has no choice but to usher them into this crazy, mixed-up world himself. From the inside of a pig sty, he sits like a proud—if befuddled—papa, wondering how on earth he’s going to feed all these new mouths.
There’s drama on the farm, too; as life returns to the once desolate land, so do the wild predators looking for a quick and easy target for their next meal. John employs night-vision cameras, a zone defense and more to beat the coyotes at their own game, but of course he doesn’t stand a chance. It’s only when he learns to let go (of course) that even this challenge is overcome, as truly everything—predators included—are part of the ecosystem they’re trying to build.
There’s really nothing at all wrong with The Biggest Little Farm. It’s one of those rare films you could bring up over the family dinner table and not spark a debate of opinions. Its message of perseverance is universal, and the Chester’s triumph in the form of a working, productive farm is to be commended. For as well as we get to know John and Molly (and the son they welcome to the family along the way), we get nearly no glimpse into the greater community who help make the farm successful; but this is a small complaint for a film that does exactly what it sets out to do: inspire, educate and entertain.