This review is available to listen or read.
This documentary first came to my attention as a suggested YouTube video, simply titled ‘Minimalism Documentary’. More accurately this is a student documentary called Thrive with Less, a title which sums up the aspirations of the six students from Michigan who chose to try simple living through “the project” of sticking to “six challenges” for a month at the least (indeed their ideas of living through a project and being challenged are key to the film). My review will walk through these challenges and respond to the documentary through them.
So what the hell is a minimalism documentary going to be about?
No “eating out”. Everything had to be prepared at home or in advance. There are a lot of scenes in the documentary where they eat together as a group or have people over. Right off the bat I found this challenge interesting but perhaps the easiest to fulfill, even though having takeaway is a fairly common treat for me and my partner. What these scenes demonstrated was that coming together as a group is a big change for individuals who do their own thing. I can relate because growing up my family always sat at the table together.
To be critical I did not particularly enjoy watching them carrying around plates of food, though, and enthusing on how important having these wholesome meals were. To be honest I just don’t find watching people eat a particularly exciting thing, but I get the purpose of it in the film. There’s one point in the film where one of the participants confesses, to his immense shame, that he has just ordered pizza and ate it. I found this moment pretty troubling – it reminded me of the mindset of the counter-culture hippies who went to live in geodesic communities in the ’60s. We never see any bullying like in those communities but he does seem far too harsh on himself.
If your rules become a straitjacket, are they really allowing you to “thrive with less”?
It’s a fairly open question that I think the film does try to broach. I’d have liked to see his friends support him and put this into context – we don’t even know if it was purely due to selfish “impulse” or because he needed that kind of comfort food because of a real life situation. It was the self-inflicted version of the Game of Thrones “Shame!” whipping scene and I found this vulnerability unsettling.
Only drive when necessary. If you’re going somewhere that’s less than 2 miles away, ditch your car. I also found this a fairly simple challenge to imagine; I’ve always walked whenever I can, although the preferred method for these students is cycling. I do frequently drive short distances, to pick up my partner from work for example. But if I didn’t do that she’d have to walk after a 12-hour day, which is unfeasible considering the work she brings home. Ideally I’d like to walk or cycle everywhere again but driving is what makes my life the most “simple” at the moment and I have to embrace that.
The problem with this challenge in Thrive with Less is that we don’t really see what these peoples’ lives was like before the project. They just seem like bright-eyed teenagers/early-twentysomethings who have decided to do some challenges and “be minimalists”. That is a stereotype that I know does not fit the reality. Minimalism is about simplicity but the people aren’t simplistic or naive and I’d have liked the film to portray this more. It was good to see them learning some skills like how to fix a bike and seeing the benefits from having that practical knowledge. Moreover they find value from learning it from a real person rather than a YouTube instruction video.
Reduce living space by 25sq feet. This was achieved with a wall of cardboard boxes. The idea was that getting rid of dead space could mean more space for social spaces, gardens, or for a family to live in. This makes sense – but they didn’t seem to live in a particularly big house anyway.
There’s a fairly substantial section dealing with the Tiny House movement which was one of my favourite aspects of the film. Thankfully it broadens the cast away from the initial 6 students. The film rapidly moves from the group of introspective students to talking to both people interested in Tiny Houses, one of whom makes the excellent argument that a tiny house can mean a life without a 30 year mortgage (which is a mad concept when you put it in those plain terms). A designer of tiny houses lends some expert opinion.
Get rid of social media; engage in other forms of community. This was a good challenge, especially for a group of “millennials” (was this term even used in 2012?). I do feel like in 2012, when this was made, my relationship with Facebook (for example) was a lot more important to me than it is now. The people involved seemed to replace the goldfish bowl of social media with vlogging, blogging and just generally talking to each other. Their argument would be these latter forms of engagement were far more useful and put them in the mindset to try other things like urban farming, which is a fair point. I think the main argument against social media is that it’s often not very “social”, because it’s built on individualist principles, coding upwards.
Cut down on possessions. This was probably the most straightforward challenge in that they just moved stuff out their life and tried to live without it. It’s not particularly well done, though. To me having 4 shirts and 1 pair of trousers / pants is a pretty rubbish formula. What do you wear when you’re doing washing? I’d rather have 3 shirts and 2 pairs of jeans just for this reason. I also think that having so few clothes, unless you all club in together, mean you have to do lots of small loads of washing, which doesn’t sound very environmentally friendly.
It’s instructive though because it’s a decisive reduction in these peoples wardrobes – some claim to have not had many in the first place, others have pretty full wardrobes. The packed rows of empty hangers in Jaclyn’s wardrobe says a lot.
Finally: Live out your passions. I found this the most compelling of the challenges. It was also the one given the least time on film. The idea is by “making room” with all the other areas you can simplify your life, so that you can go write that poetry. Mo, whose vlogs appear prominently, seems to find a lot of value in this challenge because she picks up her guitar for the first time in months.
However, and this is the crux of my criticism of the film in general, we don’t see this passion in action. We only really see them talk about it. We’re too often told rather than shown, which to me slightly defeats the point of this documentary about minimalism. The bits that would benefit more from being told rather than shown like the community meals were clearly easy things to get footage of, so they get in.
As far as a documentary on minimalism goes? This is highly specific – it clearly hasn’t got the professional budget, editing expertise or production values that went into the more recent Minimalism: A Documentary about the important things. That’s fine though: you have to judge everything on its own merits. I watched the film in 2 sittings. Because of where I found the video I had zero background information on it or what it could be. It seems like the film is intended for an audience that knows a bit about the project’s beginnings, because it rarely drills into great detail.
As I said above, I found some parts of this film uncomfortable. The film quickly moves on from an initial sense of elation to one of potentially troubling discomfort. The cast seem caught between loving the idea of “the project” and being crushed by “the project”. Maybe that’s inevitable. In their defence they are being filmed making drastic changes to their lives. I would say that the minimalist lifestyle in this film is not for everyone – like I have pointed out above, it’s easy to find some practical issues with their rules. Listening to people talk about themselves is not my favourite thing to do – but it was nice to see some personal perspectives, even if they were often filtered through a fairly programmed ideal of where they wanted to be.
What was potentially groundbreaking about this documentary was that it was 1) so ‘DIY’ – i.e. these people are not rich aesthetes living in Patrick Bateman apartments and 2) they seemed to really pull at what this term ‘thrive’ meant in practice. Ultimately we didn’t really see them over a long enough period of time to decide what ‘thrive with less’ meant for them, though, which exposes a limitation in the film.
I also liked that some of them were clearly pushing themselves more than others – Josh, for example, clearly lived frugally prior to the documentary and seems to sail through; Mo meanwhile was a more vulnerable voice who I sympathised a lot with.
It’s a worthwhile watch. It balances the good and bad, the ideas and the practical vulnerabilities.