‘Farm’ is an NPR Fever Dream of Liberal Self-Righteousness
If you haven’t upended your boring old life to go start a biologically rejuvenating farm, then you’re a lazy piece of shit. Oh, and you’re not eating fresh produce from local farmer’s markets? Then you’re also a bad person. That’s what I took away from watching The Biggest Little Farm, an NPR fever dream of liberal self-righteousness gilded with smug “meaningful life” humblebrags and wrapped in deliriously seductive outdoor cinematography.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: John Chester
Written by: John Chester, Mark Monroe
Starring: John Chester, Molly Chester
Running time: 92 min
The brave heroes of this eco-porn agitprop are John and Molly Chester, a relentlessly chipper married couple who used to live their modest life out of a small Santa Monica apartment. He was a nature cameraman, she was a food blogger. And, apparently, their respective skill sets were qualifications enough for them to quit their day jobs and go run a 200-acre farm-cum-nature-preserve called Apricot Lane Farms. Who knew? “Everyone told us this idea was crazy,” John says with mock astonishment. “They made fun of us, but it worked.” The problem is, how the hell did it actually work?
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John makes vague mention of “investors,” but never again brings them up. So, fine, the couple buy what looks like a dustbowl of unusable land in Moorpark, California. They then hire help and rip out 55 acres of trees, make compost piles, restore an old pond, fix miles of irrigation systems, and build a 40-foot bin for composting.
After that, they plant a 20-acre orchard with 75 different varieties of stone fruit, like plums, nectarines, and cherries. And they also buy a bull, lots of sheep, 100 baby ducks, scores of chickens, and a pregnant pig named Ugly Betty who they rechristen Emma. “It was like every animal you would see in a children’s book,” says Molly. Is that what you did, Molly? Consult a children’s book? Because that’s actually more believable than you guys knowing how to fix an irrigation system.
Did either John or Molly ever study engineering? Did they take any courses on agriculture? Or even read books on animal husbandry? We’ll never know. They never say. What they did do was strike up a friendship with a New Age farmer named Alan York, a Christ-like figure in linens and sandals who espouses the highest level of diversity possible and speaks in holistic aphorisms. “There’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over,” the sage says, then seems to die for their sins. “I feel abandoned,” says Molly after his untimely demise. “He passed away at the wrong time,” says John. Yeah, fuck that Alan guy.
The going gets tough, as John and Molly reckon with droughts, predatory coyotes, invasive snails, and toxic algae blooming in their pond. The solution? “Observation followed by creativity,” says John, who pretends not to have consulted any experts about their existential issues and instead credits “the rhythm of farming” as their guiding principle. Seriously?
The Biggest Little Farm is completely maddening, mainly because the fundamental issues are so fascinating. Here is a deeply disturbing illustration of how industrial farming and monocrops have decimated the landscape. And here’s an incredibly inspirational look at an age-old restorative model of biologically harmonious farming that actually creates healthier food while strengthening the environment.
But they never get into fulsome specifics of how their farm’s finances work, or how their own professional lives had to be overhauled. Those types of relatable quotidian details can be deeply profound. Instead we just get head-shaking generalities like “Each day feels terrifying and magically unpredictable.” At one point, Molly even squeals, “This is so fun! I love my life!” How I wish she had screamed, “This sucks! Why did I pick out animals from a children’s book?”
The Chesters could not come off as more disingenuous about their journey. As writer, director, producer and star of the Biggest Little Farm, John Chester probably doesn’t have much perspective on his own material. He’s certainly not interested in showing himself in an unflattering, and truly human, light. Even though the film covers nearly a decade of their lives, never do we see the two of them get into a fight or seriously doubt their decisions. As a filmmaker, John seems far more focused on creating propaganda than he is in presenting a truly absorbing portrait of two people struggling to create an Edenic farm.
Towards the end of the film, viewers get a peek at one aspect of their business model: eco-tourism. Visitors from as far away as Hong Kong come to check out the farm. And lo and behold, if you Google them, you’ll see that Apricot Lane Farms has a sophisticated website that encourages people to buy tickets for a visit.
So is The Biggest Little Farm a rousing story of how two amateur farmers challenge today’s food-factory norms by embracing an even more ancient status quo? Or is it a years-in-the-making marketing tool for some clever entrepreneurs who saw a way to exploit their eco-niche? All the soulful ruminations seem just a little opportunistic. It’s a movie about food that nourishes and starves in equal measure.