Review: Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things

Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things (available to stream on Netflix) focuses on Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, founders of “The Minimalists,” a blog on minimalism, and the producers of the documentary. Other academics and authors who focus on capitalism, consumption and minimalism are also featured in clips, but the crux of the material is about Millburn’s and Nicodemus’ journey from conspicuous consumers to mindful minimalists. They had high powered jobs with lots of stuff, yet weren’t happy until they divested themselves of everything in favor of a minimalist existence. Oh, and they’re also promoting a book… 

The interesting bits of the documentary are hidden in these interludes between the larger sections on the journey of Millburn and Nicodemus, which is unfortunate because the documentary gets bogged down by their personal story at the expense of more time on the actual discussion about minimalism and why its such an important social and environmental movement. I found that most of the contributors had really interesting things to say, either about the history of consumption or their own practices, and these clips were where the film was the strongest. Even some of the sections with Millburn and Nicodemus weren’t totally cringe-inducing, but the more screen time they had on their book tour, the less I felt interested in what they had to say.

It’s also an incredibly white film. The main narrative about minimalism is that we’re taught to covet stuff, we buy too much of it, it never makes us happy, so when we finally pare down and live with the essentials then we can finally be free to live our lives. Even as someone who has been reading about and admiring minimalism for awhile, it feels a bit condescending. Especially when Colin Wright, credited as a “professional traveller,” bounds along in front of the camera with his two suitcases smirking about being “technically” homeless and how hard that is to explain on a date. Most of the contributors are white, and while a couple of the talking-head contributors are Black or Asian, the film only speaks to them within that context. The few people whose homes the documentary looks at and explores how the context of minimalism actually looks in their lives are white.

And while Millburn and Nicodemus credit growing up poor with some of the reason they initially became people who bought a lot of things when they first had professional success, there is very little discussion of class. Stephanie Land has a great discussion of the class politics of minimalism in the NYT:

In a new documentary about the movement, “bad” consumption is portrayed by masses of people swarming into big box stores on Black Friday, rushing over one another for the best deals. They are, we’re led to understand, slaves to material goods, whereas the people who stay away from mass consumption are independent thinkers, free to enjoy the higher planes of life.

But those people flocking to Walmart and other stores don’t necessarily see things that way. To go out and purchase furniture, or an entertainment set, or a television bigger than an average computer monitor — let alone decide that I can afford to get rid of such things — are all beyond my means. That those major sales bring the unattainable items to a level of affordability is what drives all of those people to line up and storm through doors on Black Friday.

Those aren’t wealthy people who have a house full of expensive items they don’t need. Those are people teetering on or even below the poverty level, desperate for comfort in their homes. To point to them as a reason to start an anti-consumerism movement is just another form of social shaming. Those aren’t the people who would benefit from a minimalist life. They can’t afford to do with less.

The narrative of accumulating so much that you reach a breaking point and begin the process of figuring out what really matters is a really privileged one. One of my main beefs with the minimalist movement is generally their shyness to acknowledge privilege. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with acknowledging that, and it doesn’t take away from the message. Everyone’s journey is different. It is, however, difficult to sit through a bunch of white people talking about how their high-paying jobs and houses full of objects were meaningless, and that when they quit to start a blog or work in a coffee shop and learned to live with just one (trendy, expensive, ethically made) pair of jeans, they were suddenly happier and freer and had more time and expendable income. That narrative is not so applicable to people who are really struggling. It erases the reality that it is often expensive and time consuming to be poor. That’s not to say that minimalism is solely reserved to those of privileged means, but the majority of discussions about minimalism are really focused on and created by people who are already very well off.

One of the contributors I really liked in the documentary was Juliet Schor, so I’ll end by linking to a talk she did. Schor is a sociologist who looks at consumption, and I think her cultural analysis is really interesting and relevant. The documentary was interesting itself,  and if minimalism is something totally new to you it may be a good watch to get a general overview, but if it’s something you’re already familiar with, you can probably skip it and won’t miss out.

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