The Biggest Little Farm


Farmer, farmer’s best friend and beautiful farm.

(2018) Documentary (NEONJohn Chester, Molly Chester, Alan York, Beauden Chester. Directed by John Chester

If you are someone who watches a lot of documentaries about farming and food production, you’ll be aware that small family farms are essentially endangered species, being pushed to the brink of extinction by factory farms that loads up their crops with pesticides and growth hormones and practices inhumane (to say the least) practices in regards to the livestock.

John Chester is a cinematographer who started out doing nature documentaries. His wife Molly is a chef, food blogger, cookbook author and advocate for healthy farm-to-table cuisine. The two lived in a cramped Santa Monica apartment but dreamed of farm life. They adopted a rescue dog, a big black Labrador-like guy named Todd. When the two would leave the apartment to go to work, the dog suffered from acute separation anxiety, barking non-stop to the point where the landlord finally asked them to get rid of the dog. Instead, the couple opted to get rid of apartment life. They decided to live their dream instead of just discussing it.

They purchased 200 acres near Moorpark, California – about an hour North of downtown L.A. in Ventura County. Not knowing much about farming, they took the sage advice of Alan York who preached the gospel of biodiversity, raising as many crops as possible instead of just a single one and relying on pesticides. The Chesters wanted to integrate flora and fauna, and York had the know-how to make it work.

The film – largely shot by Chester and directed by him – is a chronicle of the first seven years of their journey into Green Acres territory and all the challenges they faced, from predators such as coyotes and mountain lions attacking their chicken population, or pests like snails and various bugs eating the fruits of their labors (literally). In all instances the Chesters tried solutions that incorporated natural elements, like getting ladybugs for the insect pests and so on.

There are obstacles that don’t necessarily have easy and natural solutions, like a drought that has been proclaimed the worst in 1,200 years, or the destructive wildfires that have beset California the past couple of years. The fact that the climate is changing doesn’t seem to deter the very persistent Chester family; however, it must be said that farms like theirs is part of the solution to climate change.

One wouldn’t think that a farm would be an ideal location for nature photography but Chester certainly has an eye for it and some of the images are absolutely stunning. In fact, they are almost too stunning; sometimes we get so caught up in the beautiful images for the underlying message of biodiversity and ecological responsibility to register. What will certainly register is the personality of the various farm animals, starting with Todd the Rescue Dog on down to Millie the pig, Greasy the rooster and onward.

The farm does offer tours (we see one near the end of the film) and there is a URL at the end of the film for which you can follow the Farm where, as they say, the story continues. Those who don’t want to wait to see the film to check out the farm and their activities out can go here.

Watching this simple yet heartwarming film is going to get some viewers to long for a simpler life. Maybe you too will be motivated to start a farm of your own although watching this might convince you that the very prospect is nothing short of crazy. This was a big hit at the recent Florida Film Festival and will be making a run at the Enzian in the coming weeks. Keep an eye out for it; this is truly chicken soup for the soul.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is absolutely extraordinary. Nature photography on the farm – also extraordinary. Makes one long for a simpler life. Very sweet and inspiring.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes the message is lost in the beautiful pictures
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of animal peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews: Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: After Winter, Spring
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Charlie Says

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Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

Treeless Mountain


Treeless Mountain

It may be bucolic but there's an underlying tragedy being enacted here.

(2008) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park, Lee Hyun Seo, Ha Min Woo, Lee Byung Yong. Directed by So Yong Kim

The world can be a harsh place. It is particularly rough on children, especially when their parents are not around. Think of how much harder it is when the parents give them up voluntarily.

Seven-year-old Jin (Hee) and her little sister Bin (Song) are sweet, well-adjusted little girls in South Korea. Unfortunately, their mom (Soo), not so much. Ever since her husband left them, she has had a very hard time adjusting. Raising the two girls by herself proves to be too much so she decides to go and reconcile with her husband. She then must leave her daughters with Big Aunt (Mi), her older sister who makes it very clear that this is a temporary arrangement and that she’s not interested in taking care of the kids herself.

It also becomes equally clear soon enough that she’s an alcoholic, which complicates matters. While their mom promises to return by the time that an empty piggy bank is filled with coins that Big Aunt will give them when they do their chores and are good (giving them incentive to be good – the better they are, the sooner Mommy will be home in their minds), they find themselves often bored with few children their age to play with.

They often wait by the bus stop they saw their mom leave from but she never appears. The piggy bank eventully winds up getting full (thnks to some cleverness from Jin who changes some of the bigger coins into several smaller ones to fill up the bank faster). Eventually they get a letter from their mom saying that things haven’t worked out with their dad and that she will be gone much longer than she first thought.

That’s the breaking point for Big Aunt who decides that the children must now be left with their grandparents on their farm in rural Korea. While the farm is not particularly successful and old granddad not wanting to raise a whole new set of kids after having already raised his own, the grandmother (Boon) takes the girls under her wing and teaches them the importance of family while they patiently await a mother who may never return.

This is a movie whose ambitions I admired very much. So Yong Kim has crafted a very quiet movie with not a whole lot of dialogue and a pace that requires a great deal of patience. Those who have it will be rewarded with a story that has its own beauty as well as its own tragic elements. One leaves the movie wondering what on earth will become of these kids and what sort of chance they have in life.

Much of the film centers on the two sisters and fortunately, both are adorable enough to be interesting. I wouldn’t call it a performance so much as the kids being themselves and allowing Ms. So to film them. There are moments that are truly charming…but to be fair, there are also some that are rather boring as well.

I liked the concept of following the children around and trying to get into their heads as they try to make sense of a missing mom. Unfortunately, the movie takes so much time in getting to its very chrming and bittersweet ending that I found my attention wandering. Maybe that makes me a curmudgeon but this felt more like babysitting than film viewing. I guess I’m turning into the grandfather here which is a scary thought in and of itself.

There is plenty to recommend the movie but one must be a little bit on the Zen side to truly enjoy it. It is rewarding, yes but I’m not sure I’d have the patience to sit through it again. It’s very much like a still life painting. There’s a lot going on if you have the patience and perception to look; it’s just that not all of us do.

WHY RENT THIS: A very realistic look at a family fractured by alcohol and neglect. The two young girls are adorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Long periods of time go on with little story advancement. The director relies overly much on the cuteness value of the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: No violence or sexuality and almost no profanity. The themes are a bit on the mature side though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the cast were amateur actors who had never been in a film before.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the two little girls two years after the completion of filming; there is also a Q&A with the filmmaker after a screening at the New York Film Forum.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $124,023 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: White Noise 2: The Light