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In an era of rampant consumerism, a bloated blogosphere, Trump-eted messaging through thousands of media outlets and pervasive psychic indigestion, it might be difficult to unplug and sit still long enough to hear the quiet simple message of the film "A Small Good Thing." It is.
Local Academy Award-winning filmmaker Pamela Tanner Boll ("Born Into Brothels" 2004) here directs a documentary that explores the metrics of happiness and fulfillment. It seems (surprise!) that the more we have is inversely related to how happy we are to have it. So "A Small Good Thing," which won Best Documentary at the 2015 Boston International Film Festival, asks the question, "How can we live in a better way?" and sets out to find the answer by following the lives of several people living in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.
Some of these characters like Tim Durrin started out not knowing what he would do with his life. He entered the military, fought in Iraq and later used drugs and alcohol to numb himself from what ailed him. But gradually he found his way through cycling, going back to school, living close to the land in a small community and getting back to his Native American roots.
Others seemed predisposed to the simple life. Jen and Pete Salinetti say they "started dating and growing food together" from the get go. Now they are full-time farmers on his parents' land, and are raising a family and produce that is "not only delicious, but beautiful." I swear, the carrots look like they were sent up from central casting.
Another person, Mark Gerow also started out by joining the military, the Air Force, and realized how it had numbed him out to his emotional life. He eventually made his way to acting, and finally found his "wings" and freedom through the practice of yoga. He now teaches, while raising his two children as a single parent.
At first as I watched, I found myself at odds with the foregone conclusion that back to the land "hippies know best." I lived through that the first time around. I was impatient with the easy anecdotal truisms trotted out without hard data — i.e. one expert cited "new science" that shows we are wired up genetically for kindness and compassion. What science? What study about compassion? Another expert talked about the correlation between increasing consumerism in the '50s and decreasing connection within contemporary communities. Big houses on more land keep us apart — but what about our hyperconnectivity online? Many of these characters had their laptops out.
I also wanted to know more about each character. We see Tim participating in a traditional ritual, but there's no mention of exactly what Native American tribe he is from. And what happened to the mother of Mark's children? Tell me more about Shirley Edgerton, a vibrant African-American woman who once described herself as an introvert but was able to open up and express herself by working with children in a program called Youth Alive.
The structure of the movie is a bit confusing. The filmmaker skips back and forth among these stories telling us a little more each time, but it's tricky to keep track of who's who. A number of these characters look alike — the white, bearded, brown-haired men in their 20s and 30s talking in even tones. So my gripes festered; I wanted more focus on character and/or more concrete data; the film is a disorganized mixture of both.
Then, somewhere around 2/3 of the way through, the film began to resonate for me. It happened when one of the farmers took a chicken he'd raised and casually slit its throat. Striking truths began to emerge, organically.
First, these characters witnessing and participating in the whole process of living and making a living, from beginning to end was powerful. The livestock were gently handled and respected; the chickens, even up to slaughter, seemed remarkably healthy and peaceful. There was no shrinking from the reality of what and how they — and we — actually live, and how seeing it all the way through forces one to accept responsibility for the outcome and our effect on each other. When you know your banker, your grocer, the animals you eat and how they are handled, you feel a connection and it puts one on notice. We feel more responsibility, and perhaps more compassion, which is deeply satisfying, and is the whole point of the film. Fulfillment seems to be its own currency.
The images are straightforward, and it's impossible not to notice that all of the folks here are unconcerned about the camera on them; they look notably relaxed, as do their lively and engaged children. The slow and focused pace of the film and these lives emerge as a wholesome, deeply felt antidote to the rushed, and often impersonal way that modern life often tracks. By the end of the movie, which takes us far away from the U.S. but back to the film's basic thesis, all of the characters' lives have been interwoven, several of them have met, and it becomes clear that was the key to the film's structure all along.
Happiness is tough to quantify; but the film is to be praised for trying to get its arms around it and us, gently, trusting us to respond. For some viewers, this will be a quantum leap; there isn't a single car chase, explosion or murder, only the creeping feeling that something in us is quietly being killed off.
So head on over to one of Boston's serene oases, the Museum of Fine Arts, pad down the carpeted steps of the Remis Auditorium, take a comfy seat and a deep breath. You'll find "A Small Good Thing" there between Wednesday, Oct. 28 and Friday, Nov. 6.
Joyce Kulhawik is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, president of the Boston Theater Critics Association and member of The Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read her reviews online at JoycesChoices.com.
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