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Short Take: Peter and the Farm

(Tony Stone, USA, Magnolia, Opening 
November 4)

Grizzled organic farmer Peter Dunning defies documentary templates. He’s too loud and unruly to be trapped in a patient observational film. He’s foul-mouthed and frequently inebriated—not an ideal mouthpiece for an activist’s Big Ag polemic. A wry, commanding raconteur with a colorful past, Dunning would seem to be great fodder for a quirky character portrait, but in reality, he’s too tetchy, forlorn, and controlling to play along with something so reductive and lightweight.

An artist himself, who’s spent more than three decades working the same Vermont acreage, Dunning knows and demands the best backdrop for every compelling anecdote he’s willing to share, be it the story of his mangled hand or of his family’s sudden dissolution. It feels both pragmatic and poignant that director Tony Stone yields creative agency to his subject, who struggles to find stability amid DTs and livestock loss. The film meanders in an absorbing way, its structure informed by both the changing seasons and Dunning’s intense mood swings.

Both filmmaker and subject share a deep appreciation of the land. Stone revels in the farm’s elemental allure, punctuating Dunning’s tales with tactile, expressive images of the bucolic surroundings, from serene landscapes to a most spectacular shot of bovine defecation. Long after the amusement factor wears off, Peter and the Farm continues to look and listen, finding a profound way of conveying what it’s like to grapple with depression.