'The Biggest Little Farm': Film Review | Telluride 2018

City folk transform into successful farmers.

This doc chronicles the efforts of a couple determined to live in harmony with nature on a farm outside of Los Angeles.

An autobiographical documentary account of a couple’s ambitious, life-changing enterprise that starts out on an almost unbearably cutesy, goody-goody note eventually morphs into something stirringly admirable in The Biggest Little Farm. Running a farm is a tough life of never-ending work, and once the film drops its initial idealization of back-to-the-land fantasies in favor of a more realistic assessment of the challenges involved, it becomes genuinely involving and heartening. After festival showings, this honorable doc will find a good life on television and all manner of environmentally friendly venues.

The film traverses the seven-year period it took for John and Molly Chester to fully realize their dream of establishing a thoroughly diversified farm about an hour outside of Los Angeles. As such, it will edify the curious and instruct the dreamers who have ever considered a back-to-the-land life, even if the couple represents something of a special case.

First seen in a cramped Santa Monica apartment, John and Molly are a thirty-something pair (she’s a pastry chef and food blogger, he — helpfully — is a cinematographer) looking for a life where they can “do everything in perfect harmony with nature.” The sense of self-satisfied nobility all but reaches the breaking point when Molly proclaims that, “One day we saved a life that would save ours,” a reference to a rescue dog named Todd that “filled our life with purpose.” Idealized animated footage of the family pushes things beyond precious.

Giving more time to the dog than to the question of how they financed the purchase of some two hundred acres of land in Moorpark, California, not to mention a beautiful home on the property and lots of expensive-looking equipment, John and Molly are instructed by a sort of zen agricultural guru named Alan, who has a wise-sounding answer to every question.

The first issue confronting the couple is their quest to create a “dream farm” in Southern California at the time of a severe drought. Somehow, they are able to irrigate it with a five-mile-long watering system. The aim is to achieve “the highest level of biodiversity possible,” which certainly can’t come cheap.

Year two sees Alan advocating for a “complicated” farm based on the principle of “diversity, diversity, diversity.” In addition to 75 varieties of stone fruit, the farm becomes home to a menagerie of creatures including chickens, pigs, ducks and bees. This, in turn, attracts pests and predators in the form of snails, gophers and coyotes.

Director-cinematographer Chester catches everything, from a pig giving birth to at least a dozen piglets to night-vision shots of coyotes sneaking in to kill dozens of chickens at a time. At one moment Molly can enthuse that, ”It’s truly become a paradise,” while at another the couple bemoans the loss of 70 percent of their annual fruit crop. As guru Alan sagely observes, “a comfortable level of disharmony” is the best you can hope for in this world.

Notwithstanding a drought claimed to be California’s worst in 1,200 years (how that can be known goes unaddressed) and the catastrophic recent wildfires, Apricot Lane Farms flourishes across the seven-year period documented here. The Chesters’ dedication and ultimate achievement truly is something to behold. Due to so many variables of weather and other matters of chance, farming can never be an exact science in nature but, as the Chesters ultimately reflect, “Observation followed by creativity has become our greatest ally.”

The overly sentimental score becomes an unnecessary booster shot for a film that naturally inspires by virtue of the participants’ industriousness and an optimism that refuses to be quelled.

Production company: FarmLore Films
Director: John Chester
Writers: John Chester, Mark Monroe
Producers: Sandra Keats, John Chester
Executive producers: Laurie David, Erica Messer, Paul Gurinas, Jessica Gurinas
Director of photography: John Chester
Editor: Amy Overbeck
Music: Jeff Beal
Venues: Telluride, Toronto film festivals

91 minutes