A Review of “Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things”

The Minimalist who escaped the life of corporatism and materialism, they crawled out of this hole and have been big speakers in the world of minimalism.   If you’ve heard of them, you’ve probably heard that they are doing a book tour and that they came out with a documentary.  Today I review their documentary.

In short: this documentary is a mirror to how I feel about the “Minimalist”.  I like their message, but I ultimately feel their philosophy has no teeth, a carousel ride around the theme park of minimalism without any real exploration on the how.  Despite that, there is good information contained within the 1 hour and 19 minutes of air time.

Title: Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things
Run-time: 1 hour 19 minutes
Release Year: 2016
Summary (Imdb): How might your life be better with less? Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things examines the many flavors of minimalism by taking the audience inside the lives of minimalists from all walks of life — families, entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, scientists, and even a former Wall Street broker — all of whom are striving to live a meaningful life with less.

The Minimalism documentary starts with great footage of people going feral at the opening shots of Black Friday.  People ripping each other apart, trying to snatch up the “cheap” gadgets and doodads.  This documentary started off firing all the right shots.  Next, we met the Minimalists¸ Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus.  In short, we hear both of their origin stories:

Both Milburn and Nicodemus were conventionally successful.  They discuss “success” hence my terming of “conventionally successful”.  They talk about conventional success in terms of materialistic terms and the prominent American conscious view of success: six figure incomes, houses, picket fences and lots of stuff; another way to characterize this as said in the documentary “dollar and cents successful”.  But they weren’t having it.  I’m not clear if Nicodemus was six-figure ‘successful’ as he mentions having to sell cellphones to five-year old kids, but Milburn laments his tenure as a director of operations for a retail operation and how he became an empty careerist.

For Milburn, his pivotal moment was when his mom was diagnosed with stage four cancer and he came to the realization that he spent his twenties chasing conventional success at the expense of his relationships, namely his relationship with his mom.   There was a great scene, with great filmography of Milburn reading a passage of what is assumably his book. Milburn read about how he came to the moment of seeing how his careerist life had gone too far and described the moment he found out about his mother having stage four cancer. It was a great scene, the setting conveyed the emotions well, so I give the filmography in that instance an easy A.

From the early introductions of Milburn and Nicodemus we can glean a familiar script that reoccurs throughout the documentary: somebody was conventionally successful, had x kind of job, bringing y kind of income, but they were sad, they downshift and now they are happier, healthier and better off.   Milburn and Nicodemus describe their casting off the material chains as liberating, they are much more happier and can spend time on the “important things”.

The backbone of the film is the book tour that Milburn and Nicodemus are on.  The first venue they speak at does not have many faces in the crowd.  But the Minimalist continue on, going to venue to venue.  The Minimalist get invited to speak on NPR; Milburn makes a comment about speaking on NPR that was something like “this is our target audience”.  The stereotypical audience of NPR being, upper class, white liberals, I chuckled a bit.  But it probably has a hint of truth, in that Minimalism appeals to upper class ‘white people’ that have some degree of conventional success.

The documentary interweaves between personal interludes and hard based facts.   I enjoyed the hard-based facts, even if I was familiar with the arguments being poised.  Things that were discussed were the familiar anti-consumerism tropes, the un-paralleled level of consumptions; “auto-craving” to help explain our non-ending thirst for things and the role of advertising.  Notable atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris made an appearance, as did professor of sociology, Juliet Schor. Both Harris and Schor did an excellent job of describing consumerist culture.  Other figures in the cottage industry of minimalism make appearances as well.

The documentary features tiny houses as well; as would be expected, considering how tiny houses are the apex aspect of minimalism.  We hear the stories of a few residents of tiny houses.  The stories told are similar to the other featured guests on the documentary, although they differed slightly.  One tiny house owner said she was diagnosed with MS and moving into a tiny house helped alleviate the symptoms.  Again, the documentary does not really explore the how, finances are not discussed beyond a broad sweeping statements.   Like the rest of the documentary these things are really only discussed at the high level, it’s not discussed in depth.

We get that these guests featured on the show are well off in their former lives, we get that the Minimalist themselves were conventionally successful, what this minimalist documentary does not do is give an adequate how to on how to actually be minimalistic.  To be charitable, I think anyone watching this can probably do something in their lives to be more minimalistic. A simple place is your closet: drain the swamp of your clothes you don’t wear.  Probably the closest we get to actually seeing something of substance is project 333, which seems like a great way to cut down on superfluous clothing.  And to extend another point of fairness, Milburn and a couple other featured guest showed what they packed with them.  Milburn keeps his luggage down to one bag, a couple articles of clothing and a laptop basically.

Milburn and Nicodemus now are living the dream as bloggers and traveling salesmen selling their book across the US, but how.  Some of the guests on the show are minimalist templars, being able to navigate the world without being encumbered with the daemons of materialism, being able to be the hero of our radical free souls and being able to say NO to six figure incomes and able to withdraw from the ruthless world of careerism.  I wish we got to glean into the how these people did it, did they embrace an early retirement strategy such as FIRE (financial independence, retire early), were they financially smart enough to not go into mountains of debt? But I can anticipate the counter point, and that’s so because it would be something I would say myself.  It’s not necessarily about dumping all your stuff and living in a 500-square foot tiny house.  You can make incremental changes and undergo your own tailored version of minimalism.  But of course, the people we see in the documentary extol probably one of the highest orders in the minimalistic pyramid.  I’m sure many watchers fantasize about a life of being unbound from their work, and live “better”.  Thus, I think a little more details on the how would go a long way.  From the people featured I can only imagine the only way to achieve their minimalistic paradigm was to be wealthy, then downsize and live the minimalistic life.

I did love how the documentary ended, with a speech from a terrible president: Jimmy Cartier.  The crisis of confidence speech, or otherwise known as the “malaise speech”, made in the depths of the energy crisis and a real sense of American decline.  You can see a glimpse of this speech here,  President Carter blasted the materialistic ethos of America and challenged Americans to do soul searching. It’s refreshing to hear an American leader speak with sincere honesty about the state of affairs; a quality that is conspicuously absent from contemporary American leadership.

In short I love how this film helps make the case for anti-consumerism, even if those words are never uttered throughout the film.  It’s great seeing people embracing a philosophy of escaping the rapacious cycle of materialism, but again this is film is representative of what I’ve seen from the Minimalist in general: a lack of a real blueprint on how to achieve this life.  The film is a dime tour seeing some of the more successful people in the minimalist sphere, but really doesn’t give much of substance on how to achieve it.  But if you watch with honest eyes and ears, you can probably brain storm ways to be minimalistic in your own life.   I would argue that if this documentary gave people even a more skeptical view of the consumerist epoch we live in, that the film is a success.

It’s on Netflix so if you have Netflix I would suggest making time to watch it.


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