Chicken People

Stepping into the world of competitive poultry fanciers, this documentary couldn’t be more sincere and affectionate.
Chicken People

No chicken-or-egg pondering is necessary when it comes to Chicken People and Best in Show. The latter came first, and if a filmmaker was to fashion a mockumentary of that mockumentary, it might look like the former. Nicole Lucas Haimes’ debut feature documentary is pure fact, however, but remains clearly cognisant of the amused response it might inspire. Accordingly, the film’s approach is both simple and smart: depicting reality with the potential to be taken as parody, it leans into its humorous tone. 

That said, finding entertainment in the poultry-loving parties chronicled within its frames isn’t the same as giggling at them; this is a laughing with, not at, type of feature. Chicken People couldn’t be more sincere and affectionate towards its motley crew of chook fanciers, just as they couldn’t be more sincere and affectionate towards their feathered friends. Chuckles ensue, but so does an understanding of the enjoyment found in raising, caring for and competitively displaying the titular birds — even if some of the film’s human subjects also admit to dining on chicken.

So it is that Haimes flaps between a trio aiming to try their luck at the annual Ohio National Poultry Show, each dreaming that one of their clucking charges will be named the year’s Super Grand Champion. One, aspiring performer Brian Caraker, favours his chickens when he’s forced to choose between his hobby and a job in musical theatre. Another, motoring engineer Brian Knox, assesses his henhouse with the same calculation and precision that he would a racing car. And then there’s mother-of-five Shari McCollough, who embraced her newfound flock as a method of coping with alcoholism and depression.

All three offer their thoughts and hopes to camera — sometimes staged as talking-heads chats, with other chicken fiends also interviewed; sometimes caught in the heat of the moment, both at home and in the competitive arena. To flesh out their fervour, Haimes includes on-screen illustrations from the American Standard of Perfection to explain just what they’re all striving for, as well as snippets of the judges’ assessments. Of course, the ins and outs of showing a perfect chicken aren’t as fascinating as the passion fluttering inside the two Brians and Shari. With the threesome’s motivations both recognisable and revelatory, what proved true in satire remains the same in actuality; swap their particular pastime for another, and the entire viewing audience has been in the same situation. 

Indeed, the personality of Chicken People’s obsessed folks and their relatable nature helps patch over the obvious, as far as the film’s construction is concerned. Sweetness and sincerity may reign supreme in tone, and authenticity in its sources of interest, but everything about the documentary’s style and structure adheres to formula. Still, there’s much to be said for finding the right stories and subjects, even when they’re served up in obvious packaging. There’s much to be said for valuing earnestness above all, as well; when Chicken People flies high, it’s with empathy and appreciation.

Rating: 2 ½ stars out of 5

Chicken People
Director: Nicole Lucas Haimes     
US, 2016, 83 mins

Release date: July 6
Distributor: Icon
Rated: PG


Sarah Ward

Wednesday 12 July, 2017

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay