Released: 1st January
Seen: 2nd January
When I think about minimalism, I tend to think about it in conjunction with the art world. My brain instantly goes to works by the minimalists like Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, which is a 5-metre high painting of two dark blue lines with a bold red line right in the middle. Well, it turns out that minimalism is also a lifestyle movement now which basically means to have nothing in your home that you don’t have an actual use for (so bye-bye to that Funko Pop collection).
So, naturally, there’s a documentary about this lifestyle on Netflix that only lasts an hour because a minimalists documentary should be as clean and crisp as possible. To be honest, it still feels a little bloated at times but that’s because The Minimalists is mostly about how we, as a society, put too much of our lives into owning stuff. The bulk of the film follows the lives of two average guys, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus who (according to every summary I’ve read) have built a movement around minimalism and want to share what they’ve learned with you, the consumer of Netflix’s service.
As a documentary, The Minimalists does have a lot of genuinely great points to make. Points like how people put more importance on stuff, how we have de facto monopolies and how our society has changed its behaviour in the quest to own the latest gear. It does this through a combination of talking-head interviews and animations that help explore the ideas that this film is selling.
The idea of The Minimalists is commendable, exploring how people use stuff to fill an emotional hole inside them. The talks with experts and people who have embraced this lifestyle are fascinating and give you the urge to get up and clean out the closet… then they do the glorified TED talk stuff and I just completely zone out.
Now and then, either Joshua or Ryan (usually Joshua) will stand in an empty warehouse and deliver a TED Talk to absolutely nobody. Now, there is nothing wrong with a good TED Talk and Joshua and Ryan seem to be good at it (They should be, I found at least two actual TED Talks that they’ve already given) but it doesn’t work in the context of this film. It’s a jarring shift in tone and style that feels pretentious, it goes from informing people to patronising them and it feels uncomfortable.
There’s also a lot of recreations, again just of Joshua and Ryan’s stories of how they worked hard to get stuff and then got rid of the same stuff. Some documentaries need recreations to sell certain ideas… but do we need recreations of Ryan’s packing party or Joshua cleaning out his mom’s house? I know what that looks like, there’s nothing visually interesting, it just feels like bragging that their lives are impressive enough that they can afford the time to have things like a packing party.
The moments of Joshua and Ryan that worked best were when they’re just talking in a car ride or a cafe, being casual and open with each other. That’s when you see how happy they are and how this movement has brought them together as friends, and when they use those moments to talk about minimalism it works because it’s not as heavily produced. It’s even kind of minimalist because they’re not using a gigantic pointless set that’s been decorated to give off the air of minimalism. That’s when I want to listen to them and take on board what they’re saying, I wish they did more of it.
The Minimalists really does need a little more work to be the most effective version it can be, but what’s there is still an interesting look into a life that’s not leaning on consumer goods as a source of self-worth… kinda weird to have an anti-consumption movie hosted on Netflix, the biggest streaming service on earth, but as far as documentaries go it’s fine and has a good message that I really can’t argue with.
WRITERS NOTE: In the spirit of minimalism (and the spirit of “I don’t want to keep making the gifs”), I’m no longer scoring reviews. It started to feel more arbitrary with every review and sometimes I change my mind on a score but not on the actual text… so yeah, hopefully I’m a good enough writer to let you know if a film is good or bad just by writing about it without needing to attach a number at the end.