Even if you can’t tell a leghorn from a mud hen, you may find yourself fascinated by “Chicken People,” an illuminating and amusingly entertaining look at the thriving subculture of competitive poultry breeders. Director Nicole Lucas Haimes approaches her subjects — both human and otherwise — with equal measures of bemused curiosity and respectful empathy, with nary a trace of wink-wink condescension. To be sure, it’s initially tempting to view the documentary — which has been flapping across the fest circuit prior to limited theatrical release and CMT airdates — as a real-life version of Christopher Guest’s satirical “Best in Show.” But as the film progresses, the sheer determination of the breeders who are Haimes’ primary focus commands respect, not derision.
Haimes offers snippets of interviews with several chicken fanciers — including a few who admit, either reluctantly or robustly, that they occasionally dine on poultry — but largely concentrates on three competitors. Brian Caraker, a personable young musical-theater performer, is so driven to breed prize-winners that he sacrifices his job with a Branson, Missouri revue to concentrate on his avocation. Brian Knox, a New Hampshire-based engineer, channels into his cross-breeding efforts the same meticulous methodology that is his stock in trade as a race engine builder.
As enthusiastic as these two fellows are, however, their narratives are overshadowed by the poignant story of Shari McCollough, a homemaker and mother of five (children, not chickens) from Crawford, Ind., who credits poultry breeding and competition with helping her overcome depression and alcoholism. When she says, late in the documentary, “Chickens make me brave — they make me face fears head-on in life,” her matter-of-fact sincerity carries an unexpectedly potent emotional wallop. Just as important, it encourages a viewer to consider just how common her attitude is among the other breeders.
Haimes follows the competitors over a year leading up to the annual Ohio National Poultry Show, the Westminster for chickens, where demanding judges rate the comb curls, tail lengths, and other attributes of entrants while awarding prizes in assorted categories — and selecting a Super Grand Champion. Here and elsewhere, Haimes skillfully employs century-old illustrations from the American Standard of Perfection, the American Poultry Association’s official guide to competition criteria, to help the uninitiated better understand what the judges are looking for, and the breeders are striving for.
“Chicken People” generates a fair amount of suspense, especially when a Swine Flu epidemic plays a factor in the proceedings. But it also abounds in moments of ineffably charming comic relief as the breeders attentively wash, blow-dry, and otherwise primp their chickens. Early on, Caraker admits to serenading his feathered friends with “The Way You Look Tonight” and other selections from the Great American Songbook. Hey, whatever works.