I was recently treated to an early screening of Small is Beautiful, a documentary film about the makers of tiny houses. The film has its official Portland premiere on May 7 at the Laurelhurst Theater.
[photo courtesy smallbeautifulmovie.com]
It’s a nice piece of film-making, alive with interesting characters and thought-provoking ironies. But it might not be what you expect. Director Jeremy Beasley hasn’t made a film about a movement, but rather a few specific people. It’s less about houses than the choices people make, and the idea of independence itself.
This tack is fixed by the basic premise of the film: following four people (one couple and two singles) through the process of building three tiny houses. The focus is on the process of creating or placing the houses, not living in them. At the time of filming, only one of the four subjects has actually spent time living in her tiny house.
This is a natural setup for a film-maker, because the building projects provide a dramatic arc to what might otherwise be a structureless subject (just as in sports stories, there must inevitably be a “big game”).
That means housing geeks (such as me) may be a bit disappointed. The film can’t say much about whether tiny houses actually work as long-term residences. We don’t know much more than before about whether they’re a novelty or a truly progressive form of housing.
Instead, watching the process of creating and placing the houses makes one study character, and life choices. All of the tiny-house makers, though they differ in age and style, seem to be looking for a kind of independence.
Ben, as depicted in the film, is a young man preoccupied with unresolved feelings about his long-estranged, and now dead, biological father. For him making a tiny house seems to be an effort to create a bit of security in an uncertain world, which oddly enough seems rich in supportive family and friends.
Nikki and Mitchell are a thirty-ish couple looking for financial freedom, but it is safe to say the film portrays their real issue as codependency. Their plan to live together in the tiny house they are building, along with two dogs, does not appear to be an idea that could work on any level.
“I think if we did it again, we would build his and hers tiny houses,” one of them says at one point, making one wonder where the relationship is really going.
Karen is an older woman who creates a tiny house so she can run her medical practice in a more charitable and idealistic way. With the tiny house built, she runs her clinic the way she wants, but at the same time struggles with new insecurities, such as getting kicked out of her tiny house’s parking spot.
Landlessness is “part of the joy” of the experience, she relates. Despite the anxiety about where to live, she also feels a growing ability to withhold judgments and to keep an open mind.
Director Beasley deserves a lot of credit for avoiding the easy road. He could have made a film about design, full of tiny-house eye candy and absent any clue how real life actually proceeds.
Instead he’s given us something a lot more challenging. Even if the film is “small” in its scope, it presents a giant philosophical challenge. Though tiny houses symbolize independence, creating them and placing them in the world just serves to illustrate how interdependent people are.
I hope he can return in a year or two with an expanded version, or a sequel, so we can find out how the tiny house makers have lived, now that they’ve built.