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Soulful harvest: ‘Biggest Little Farm’ chronicles couple’s transformation of barren patch of land

Filmmaker and farmer John Chester with Emma the pig in “The Biggest Little Farm.” (Courtesy of Neon)

Since premiering at the Telluride Film Festival last year, “The Biggest Little Farm” has been a sensation on the festival circuit, and it’s easy to see why. The documentary chronicles the exploits of Molly and John Chester, a Los Angeles-based chef and cinematographer, respectively, who decided to buy 200 acres of barren land an hour north of the city and establish a farm. And not just any farm: a modern-day Eden of organic food production, and environmental restoration and diversity in which plants, animals and humans coexist within a self-contained biome of balance and sustainability.

Like most idealists, Molly and John are forced to reckon with more unwelcome realities, such as pests, predators, punishing wildfires and wind, and biblical rainstorms. Filmed by John Chester and a team of interns over eight years, “The Biggest Little Farm” captures the triumphs and defeats of the Chesters’ enterprise with arresting intimacy, from an epic scene in which their star pig, Emma, gives birth to 17 adorable piglets, to scenes of pecked-out peaches – devastated by birds and insects – that carry the emotional weight of the death of beloved characters. There are even sadder losses in “The Biggest Little Farm,” which, as it proceeds, becomes a gentle, lyrical ode to the natural rhythms of life, death and regeneration. This is a must-see film, not just for the primer it offers in how food ways, farming practices and larger environmental forces are crucially connected, but for its dazzling imagery of nature in action, both by way of breathtaking close-ups and sensational aerial shots of the farm and its environs.

An aerial view of Apricot Lane Farms in “The Biggest Little Farm.” (Courtesy of Neon)

Which isn’t to say that “The Biggest Little Farm” is perfect. John Chester, who narrates the film and co-wrote the script with Mark Monroe, frames his and Molly’s journey within their devotion to an adopted mutt named Todd – who makes for a charismatic protagonist but in whom the couple invest almost mystical anthropomorphic powers. That preciousness – along with a creeping sense of self-congratulation – isn’t helped by too-cute animated sequences and some narrative holes in terms of where and how the Chesters acquire the money, not just to purchase their land, but to invest in what looks like expensive composting and irrigation equipment, as well as the consulting services of a visionary bio-dynamic farming expert named Alan York. (One or two scenes also raise questions as to whether the cameras were always on in every corner of the farm or whether Chester and his team were just remarkably lucky.)

By the time “The Biggest Little Farm” arrives at its satisfying, sensorially rich third act, some viewers might suspect that they’ve just seen a particularly well-produced promotional film for Apricot Lane Farms, which apparently has become a bona fide tourist destination. But even at its most calculating and sentimental, this engaging, illuminating, sometimes painfully moving film possesses enormous value, if only for presenting us with an example of how a simple shift in consciousness can change the world – or at least one’s small patch of it. True to its title, “The Biggest Little Farm” winds up punching above its weight by a bushel and a peck.