Inspirational Documentary is Small, But Not That Good

#47:  A SMALL GOOD THING (2015)

Is it my imagination, or are we in the midst of a glut of inspirational documentaries?  Don’t there seem to be an awful lot of current films proposing to answer the big “how to live a good life” question?   They tell us to break free of consumerism, slow our food, love our bodies, get rid of our stuff, become mindful, connect.  And it’s good advice, most of it.  Truly.  But I think I may have overdosed on these docs.  I am becoming increasingly mindful myself,  noticing that these movies almost always feature young, attractive white people; often people who have the financial means to go on spiritual quests, uproot and start new careers, or  – for that matter – develop documentaries about how to live a good life.  I repeat, the individual pieces of advice are good.   If I sound cynical, let me point out that I do yoga.  I practice mindfulness meditation.  I’ve been cutting the sugar out of my diet, and I’m trying to minimize my stuff.  I can be as idealistic as the next person, I think.  But I’m tired of movies that make life transformation seem so easy and so…pretty.  I’m tired of being inspired, at least when inspiration feels like a marketing ploy.

In this genre of documentaries (young attractive white people tell you how to live better), A Small Good Thing is especially off-putting.  It is set in the pastoral beauty of the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts.  The six people featured in the documentary all seem to live in hamlets full of quaint shops in which everyone knows everyone.  Think Stars Hollow, and you’re getting close.  The folks who are doing “a small, good thing” with their lives are Sean, a livestock farmer; Tim, a recovering alcoholic, student, and competitive cyclist; Mark, a yoga instructor; Jen &  Pete, produce farmers; and Shirley, the founder of a community youth program.  I should note here that Shirley is African-American and older than the other people featured in A Small Good Thing.  She, at least, breaks through the patterns for these documentaries.

I’m tired of being inspired, at least when inspiration feels like a marketing ploy.

A Small Good Thing allows each of these Berkshire residents to talk about their life journeys, but in surprisingly vague ways.  Mark talks about how emotionally disconnected he used to be, but never really explains his path to “connectedness”.  Was it simply yoga?  Becoming a father?  Aside from “practice yoga” what wisdom does his story really have to offer?  It’s much the same with Tim.  He’s a military veteran, was an alcoholic, and is now a healthy, glowing cyclist and aspiring social worker.  What happened in the in between? The lives and work of the farmers are shown in more detail, and their motives for farming as they do – on a small scale, humanely, cleanly – are clearer.  Even so, the small farm movement has been covered in more compelling depth in other documentaries like Fresh (2009) and The Garden (2008).  Shirley’s work with youth, particularly through the arts, is undoubtedly valuable, but A Small Good Thing just skims the surface of what Shirley’s program, Youth Alive, does.  Viewers won’t come away with any sense of who the Youth Alive kids are, or how the program benefits them.

A Small Good Thing follows Jen & Pete on a trip to Rwanda with an organization called Gardens for Health; and shows Tim deepening his Native American roots in Alaska.  But even these departures from the Berkshires seems incidental.  Everyone is just passing through the movie, doing their thing, but not really coming to life as individuals  or communicating why I, the viewer, should care about their choices.  My thought after watching A Small Good Thing was that this documentary is unnecessary.  It won’t teach you much about farming, or yoga, or youth services, or recovery, or the Berkshires, or….well, anything, really.  It’s a travel brochure glimpse of a better life, featuring people who look like they belong in travel brochures.  But you’ll need to go elsewhere for meaningful discussion on what the “good life” really is.