When John and Molly Chester were evicted from their apartment due to their overly yappy rescue dog, they took the only logical step: they bought a farm. This sudden change wasn’t completely out of the blue. Molly worked as a chef and dreamed of starting a traditional farm in order to source her own ingredients. John worked as a filmmaker, with experience in nature cinematography, so his natural progression in this journey was to create a film about their new endeavor. Thus, the documentary, The Biggest Little Farm, was born.
When the Chesters first purchased Apricot Farms, John and Molly faced 200 acres of dried up, abandoned land. The soil, which was once used for avocado and lemon trees, was uninhabitable and dead. Overwhelmed, the couple turned to Alan York, a known guru in the traditional farming world, to help them bring their farm, and their dreams, to life.
Alan was idealistic, as were John and Molly, and together they planned their new traditional farm. The current state of farming in the 21st century, however, is centered around single product enterprises. Their new home was surrounded by more modern farms dedicated solely to berries or eggs. But this wasn’t the path that Molly wanted to take. Traditional farming brings you back to a more natural state of the land, one where different plants and animals coexist and help each other to thrive. Balance is key, and The Biggest Little Farm, shot over seven years, captures the delicacy of nature’s harmony.
John and Molly really care about their farm, and their love and passion come through in John’s gorgeous cinematography. Every frame is a painting, capturing each part of life on Apricot Farm, from the biggest mama pig in her hut to the tiniest microorganisms below the dirt. Their beloved dog, Todd, and their biggest rival, a hungry coyote, get an equally stunning visual treatment.
There is a decent amount of verite moments — most noteworthy are those surrounding a plot concerning murdered chickens and one featuring Emma the pig and her birthing surprises — but most of the film is told through voiceover. Lots and lots of voiceover. So much voiceover in fact, that The Biggest Little Farm could have been a podcast instead. John doesn’t let a moment go by without telling the audience exactly what’s happening.
Overcompensating with voiceover in this way comes across as condescending, unfortunately. We can see what’s happening in front of us, so why does the director fill in so many scenes with unnecessary recreated dialogue between him and his wife? John’ voice is a prevalent character in the story, but we’re never given any time to actually watch John and Molly talk about the farm and see them express their passion. Almost everything they say is scripted and spoken over shots of life on the farm, leaving us distanced from who they really are.
The film could have lost the voiceover and been just as successful at telling the same story of balance in nature. John Chester is a talented filmmaker and excels with the individual storylines of the animals on his farm. I never thought I would care so much about an outcast rooster named Greasy, but the film pulled me in with small but mighty scenes showing Greasy’s character arc from unwanted annoyance to adoptive father of piglets. Every plant, every life, and every death has a purpose in this ecosystem and the filmmaker does a beautiful job displaying the importance of all the creatures on their land.
At times, the excessive and direct reminders about the importance of nature’s harmony are a bit too heavy-handed, and some of John’s poetic remarks definitely deserve eye-rolls. The film ramps up the drama in unnecessary places without realizing that it doesn’t need a bellowing score and unwarranted suspense. The story is already beautiful enough on its own.
There are profound moments in The Biggest Little Farm showcasing nature at its highest potential. In a world that can feel overrun with humans to the point of no return, it’s hopeful to see the power of our earth’s natural state. The film can be bumpy and overly commercial, but its ability to show us the potential of a dying piece of human-tampered land is ultimately a triumph.