“He basically wants to spend his whole life messing with chickens.”
The best documentaries often come from the most unexpected places. Whether it’s air guitar competitions, arcade game rivals or competitive tickling foundations, the ones that really narrow in on one subject —exploring the beauty, fascination and oddities found within — usually make the best impression. They allow you to explore a world you never considered and get invested in things you probably never knew existed. These are the kinds of documentaries I find most appealing, and that’s probably why I was so taken by Chicken People, director Nicole Lucas Haimes’ entertaining and oddly heartwarming look at national poultry competitions.
What initially plays like nonfiction Best in Show with pampered fowl soon becomes an affectionate, engaging and contemplative look at obsession, addiction and social alienation. It lets us see ourselves in the kind of people you’d likely never imagine giving a second glance. I love documentaries that give you this new life perspective, and Haimes’ new movie is no exception. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in an already-great year for documentaries.
Haimes focuses on three different extremist personalities: Brian Caraker, a young singer from Branson, Missouri forced to choose between his professional stage life and his love for his precious chickens; Shari McCollough, an Indiana mother of five with an addictive personality and a love for animals, including llamas and dogs in addition to her prized 200 chickens; and Brian Knox, a lonely hobbyist from New Hampshire who finds joy and purpose in breeding and carrying for his meticulously surveyed birds. Their poor parents, families and friends are often caught in the mix, having to help care for these winged winners as if they’re the ones with the obsession. They’re the kind of people who will groom, prim and spruce their birds like their lives depend upon it. They study the standard of perfection like it’s the Bible. They’re among 230 competitive personalities working their way towards holding the coveted Super Grand Champion prize. They’ll do whatever it takes to win, and it’s easy to laugh at their antics. They’re just chickens, right?
But as Haimes illustrates, there’s an art to their craft, like any other. It’s no more eccentric than any other person with an oppressive fascination. They know what they love in life, and they know what they hope to gain. And really, they’re no less crazy than dog lovers or cat people anyway. Okay, they might be a little crazier. But once Chicken People gets you involved, it makes you care about these exceptional poultry like you (likely) never have before. It’s captivating filmmaking at its purest.
What often makes this new documentary work so well is Haimes’ supportive, attentive vision. If her tongue is planted firmly to her cheek, she’s still letting you feel sympathy for her subjects, and she never makes you feel manipulated or provoked by a dictated narrative or agenda, unlike, say, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Her watching eye is sometimes compromised by her quick editing style, but you still feel engrossed in this specific lifestyle, watching them care and nurture these precious pets that we often take for granted, especially with millions of Americans selling and consuming them on a daily basis. The movie is not spiteful. It doesn’t sneer. It rarely snickers after a point. It’s simply a compassionate, good-hearted documentary about an unusual little annual competition, found in select cities like Columbus and Knoxville. If you’re someone like me, you’ll be surprised to see how taken you become by this weirdly specific subject matter.
Because ultimately, Chicken People is a documentary about acceptance and appreciation. More than anything else, these people want to be vindicated and understood in their near religious commitment to their chickens. Whether you love chickens with all your heart or never held one in your life, that’s something anyone with a persistent passion should understand. That’s what gives this documentary its beating heart. This journey into exploring “chickenism” is one of the most enjoyable and enlightening you’ll see this year, and thanks to a number of beautifully photographed sequences, you might even begin to see why these people love these birds so much — at least, to an extent. Chicken People is a top contender.