TINY: A Story About Living Small
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I’ve often remarked that the quality of any documentary film can be judged in how well it explores and inserts the audience into a community that might seem initially odd to them, and makes it relatable. By that yardstick, “TINY: A Story About Living Small,” is a highly engaging and worthwhile entry.
This hourlong doc by Christopher Smith and Murete Mueller takes a look at the “tiny house” movement, in which people live in spaces under 200 square feet — often ones they’ve constructed with their own two hands.
The co-directors interview a bunch of tiny home proponents, exploring the small spaces they’ve carved out into an abode. The architectural and design work on some of these itsy-bitsy cottages can be quite elaborate and ingenious, with overlapping functions and uses.
But what makes “TINY” especially powerful is that it is also about a personal journey. The framing device for the story is that Smith, a rambling soul approaching 30, has bought a small piece of land in Hartsel, Colo., and plans to build a tiny home to place upon it. Mueller, his girlfriend and a writer, helps out with the construction but is ambivalent about the notion of living there.
“This is a story I told myself about home, and how I would find it,” Smith narrates.
Things don’t go so well. Despite having no construction experience, Smith thinks he’ll be able to build the house in three months. Instead, it stretches out to a year, with time and money both running short.
The plan is to build it onto a trailer, since the film instructs us that many municipalities have laws against building houses under a certain size. And this feeds into an aspect of the tiny home community; its ethos is a combination of Henry David Thoreau and Old West outlaw. They want to minimize their environmental impact, but beating the system is part and parcel of the appeal.
The interviews with the various people living in tiny homes — a few as small as 89 square feet, or about the size of a walk-in closet in a modern house — are a high point. There’s no denying a certain self-satisfied smugness about a few of them, an eco-conscious holier-than-thou attitude. But for the most part, they’re people of conviction who felt compelled to challenge the orthodoxy of getting a high-paying job and buying a big house.
One woman who worked as a financial investment advisor says that life made her miserable while now she’s able to focus on what makes her happy: “Do you really want to spend your time working at a job you hate to buy crap that you can’t afford?”
But the filmmakers are not afraid to challenge the tiny home assumptions. While talking about his dream to have a small place in the mountains, Smith acknowledges that if everyone did this, there would be no empty land with which to fill the American Dream.
Most illuminating is the story of Jay Shafer, one of the founding lights of the tiny house movement, who made his reputation and his living designing small abodes in the 1990s. But now he’s older, married and has children, and they’ve moved into a place five times the size of his old home.
“It’s a lot easier to decide what you need when it’s just you. Then when you get married and have kids or if you have any sort of cohabitation going on, other people have a say in the way things are at home, too,” Shafer says.
It’s a tacit acknowledgement that tiny homes are something generally compatible only with people desiring solitude, though several tiny-home couples are depicted.
It’s a lovely looking film with gorgeous cinematography of the Colorado landscapes, and Timothy Cleary’s lyrical score of guitar and strings meshes perfectly with the film’s visual look and themes.
If I have a criticism to level at the film, it’s that “TINY” never quite gets into Smith’s head in a way that is truly satisfying. He and Mueller alternately turn the camera on each other for interviews, and while she expresses her inner thoughts well and vividly, Smith tends to come across as a dude who shrugs off the questions a lot.
But perhaps his quest to build a tiny home is meant to fill in the holes of his depictions. “Home is really a self-portrait,” he narrates, and this lovely documentary shows us that small houses can hold some really gargantuan ideas.