An idealistic L.A. couple — he’s a cameraman, she’s a private chef — leave their tiny Santa Monica apartment behind and move an hour north to pursue their back-to-the-land ideals (at the behest of their anxious rescue dog, no less). But dreams of happy sheep and peach trees soon yield to the cold realities of coyotes, record droughts, and rogue snails in writer-director John Chester’s winning, warm-hearted documentary.
Chester and his wife Molly look like the kind of well-intentioned NPR-tote-bag types who compost and try not to buy the non-organic tomatoes at Trader Joe’s, though that’s about the extent of their knowledge when they purchase 130 acres of parched dirt in Moorpark, California. Dirt is dead; soil is alive with organisms, and that’s what they need to make this place begin to bloom — which they do with the help of a beatific, grey-ponytailed mentor named Alan.
Between their own inexperience and the basic unpredictability of nature, there’s a lot of two steps forward, ten steps back, a struggle which Chester sometimes tends to gloss over. (More on that might have been more informative than a series of twee animation segments designed to move the early narrative along). He also never really gets into the details of how exactly the couple is able to sustain such an enormous undertaking financially, especially when they appear to be operating at a major loss for much of the movie’s running time.
It’s almost impossible, though, not to become emotionally invested in the film’s protagonists — not just John and Molly but all the ones on fins and four legs — as they struggle to maintain balance within an often unforgiving environment, and with one another. Chester doesn’t shy away from some of the more brutal realities of farm life (breech births, chicken-coop massacres) even as he offers endearingly bite-sized character studies of rejected roosters, finicky pigs, and enough ridiculous baby livestock to fill a daily desk calendar.
As the story unfolds over nearly a decade, Biggest becomes something even more impactful: a thoughtful and often profoundly moving portrait of the remarkable work involved in producing mindful food — and an eloquent reminder that so much of what we take for granted on our plates is, in its own everyday way, a miracle. B+