With all due respect to former Vice President Al Gore, here is an inconvenient truth about most environmental documentaries: No matter how important the message, it’s kind of a drag to sit through so many alarmist lectures about how the world is going to end and what humans are doing to speed along its destruction. That’s what makes “The Biggest Little Farm” feel like fresh air for the soul — figuratively, of course, although audiences will almost surely breathe a little easier after tuning in to this inspirational story of one couple who made an impact by entirely rethinking their ecological footprint.
The inspirational story of how a Los Angeles couple quit the city, moved an hour north of one of the most polluted metropolitan centers on Earth, and pursued their dream of growing every ingredient she could possibly want to cook with, this lead-by-example change-the-world doc is perhaps the closest cinema has come to the eco-philosophical musings of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” author Michael Pollan, who freely challenges long-held social paradigms in his work — something this enlightening doc does too. Both deeply personal and remarkably objective, “The Biggest Little Farm” offers a firsthand account of the ups and downs of married duo John and Molly Chester’s trial-and-error attempt to start a biodiverse agricultural operation on land that had long since been stripped of nutrients.
As a couple, John and Molly don’t know much about farming, but their ignorance proves to be an asset to the film, which delivers a humble back-to-nature fantasy for city-livin’ adults, while doubling as a rich classroom learning tool for younger audiences. By enticing kids with all kinds of adorable animal footage, the movie finds an intuitive way to make them care about the fate of the farm (where chickens and ducks are regularly attacked by coyotes, and gophers, snails and other pests eat away at the trees), teaching lessons the Chesters themselves observed about how the complex ecosystem could be made to regulate itself. “It’s a simple way of farming. It’s just not easy,” director and narrator John confesses at one point via typically eloquent voiceover.
He and Molly may seem like dilettantes at first, granola-minded city folk with no idea how to begin cultivating the land they’ve purchased, but they have wisdom and humility to engage an expert, a man named Alan York, who helps map out a plan to turn their newly acquired Apricot Lane Farms into a kind of modern-day Eden. York, in his vaguely loony-sounding way, spells out a plan that sounds far too utopian to be practical, and yet, the Chesters go along with it, taking land that could barely support even lemon and avocado trees and transforming it into a habitat for all kinds of plants and animals. The key, Yorke believes, is reviving the soil through cover crops, coupled with a diversity of flora and fauna — to the extent that they wind up with 76 distinct varieties of stone fruits (arranged in such a way that it looks more like a botanical garden than an orchard from the air).
Directly benefiting from John Chester’s cinematography background, the otherwise casual, scrapbook-style documentary — in which old home videos and hand-drawn animation fit nicely with Jeff Beal’s folksy string score — boasts intervals of stunning, unexpectedly gorgeous wildlife footage: Drone-mounted cameras convey York’s incredible design, night vision exposes the sneaky critters who disrupt things after dark, high-frame-rate macrophotography captures each flap of a hummingbird’s wings while turning raindrops into a kind of Luftwaffe air raid for shell-shocked bugs, and so on.
The movie covers an awful lot — roughly eight years of obstacles overcome — in its judiciously short running time, introducing a handful of lovable animal characters in the process. There’s Todd, the rescue dog whose incessant barking got the Chesters evicted from their Santa Monica apartment. And there’s Emma, the very pregnant and somewhat ornery sow who blesses them with more piglets than they know how to handle (17 in her first litter alone!), later becoming a kind of mascot for the farm after her breeding days are over. Audiences are invited to connect with the material as they might a good James Herriot story, forging a kind of familiarity that includes them in problem-solving each challenge, with the result that viewers share in the triumph of each tiny success.
Though it opens with a raging California wildfire (and later frets about the worst drought the state has seen in 1,200 years), “Farm” never mentions global warming or pollution. Instead, it’s unflappably solutions-oriented — like the Chesters themselves — focusing on what a small group of dedicated people can do to improve their immediate environment. The answer: more than anyone could have thought. And compared with the sky-is-falling tone of most eco-docs, that upbeat, motivational approach makes the biggest little difference.