“Small is Beautiful,” Australian filmmaker Jeremy Beasley’s new feature-length documentary on the stateside tiny house movement, isn’t really about tiny houses.
Sure, the phrase “tiny house” is uttered roughly every other sentence though the crowdfunded film’s 108-minute running time. And, yes, the veritable parade of dainty hand-built dwellings that appear throughout Beasley’s beautifully shot debut will appease the most ardent of small living devotees. Heck, even Dee Williams and her overalls show up in a few pivotal scenes.
But, again, “Small is Beautiful” isn’t really about tiny houses.
It’s about people.
Needless to say, the tiny house movement in the United States has been just a wee bit romanticized. Many have come to view extreme downsizing as a passing fad, a curiosity, a coffee table book, a reality show, a BuzzFeed video, a "Portlandia" sketch, an "alternative lifestyles" phenomenon confined to Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Constructing — and taking up residence in — a tiny house has largely been portrayed as easy, fun, upbeat, non-consequential, carefree, something that even a high school student can pick up.
Beasley, so captivated by the tiny house movement that he traveled from Australia to Portland, Oregon, to film “Small is Beautiful,” zeroes in less on the houses themselves and more on the individuals who have made the life-altering decision to build and live in them.
And when asked if they would do it again or recommend undertaking a tiny house project to others, the resounding answer from the quartet of tiny house-dwelling Portlanders featured in the film is a resounding “no” and “never again.” One goes as far to state that: “I feel like I have a lot in common with Captain Ahab. It’s like me versus my tiny house — and I’m trying to build this thing and this thing is trying everything it can to not get built.”
While Beasley’s four subjects stand behind with their choices, the very much non-sugar-coated “Small is Beautiful” revolves around the anger, the frustration, the doubt, the defeat, the hopelessness, the heartbreak and the raw emotion that they all experience during their unique journeys. It would be unfair to call “Small is Beautiful” a cautionary tale but it shows that tiny house building isn’t the proverbial walk in the park that it’s often made out to be. It’s hard.
And it’s in discussing these hardships that “Small is Beautiful” — a rare and incredibly poignant documentary about small living that manages to choke you up — really shines.
There’s 20-something digital strategist Ben Campbell who delves into tiny house-dom as a way to confront — and work through —the demons left lingering after the death of his long-estranged father. Embarking on his project with little building knowledge and relying heavily on friends and family members for support, Campbell’s tiny house is made possible, financially speaking, by his late father’s life insurance policy. “This house isn’t so much a way to escape as much as a way to take root,” explains Campbell. “It forces you to rely on other people, and it forces other people to rely on you and I think that’s a much healthier way to live.”
Karin Parramore, an acupuncturist in her early 50s, started her tiny house project for the same reasons that many others do: to liberate herself from a mortgage and enjoy a life less cluttered — the “freedom to be a gypsy,” as she puts it. During her journey, addiction claims her romantic partner and tiny house co-builder. She also frequently struggles with the “lack of permanence and rootedness” — the notion of being a “visitor wherever I am living.” She says: “The goal of my life is to never live unconsciously. And this experience really kind of puts that to the test on a regular basis. I’m grateful for it ... but it’s kind of freaky sometimes.”
Mitchell Mast and Nikki Codding, a couple in their early 30s, moved to Portland to fulfill their downsized dreams. Both self-described perfectionists, Nikki and Mitchell find a nurturing environment at Green Anchors, a “micro-ecopark” in the city’s St. Johns neighborhood where they commence construction of their tiny house. However, their relationship begins to slowly unravel, largely undone by the fears and doubts tied into their tiny house — the sheer overwhelmingness of it all. Mitchell and Nikki ultimately decide to salvage their tiny house — and their relationship — by leaving Portland. And so, two dogs in tow, Mitchell and Nikki move back to Reno where, living in Nikki’s parents’ home, they complete their pint-sized abode. “Building the tiny house has been a huge test on our relationship,” Mitchell reflects. “It was something that seemed very logical to us at the time. But life happened along the way.”
The struggles and triumphs of these four extremely eloquent and honest individuals is what propels “Small is Beautiful" — a tiny house documentary that’s ultimately less concerned with square footage and more about the human experience.
Having already enjoyed its theatrical debut Down Under, "Small is Beautiful" is available for purchase on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vimeo On Demand. Screenings are also planned for this summer with various stops throughout the U.S. and Australia. Have a hanky handy.
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