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Tiny: A Story About Living Small

Director: Christopher Smith, Merete Mueller

(US theatrical: 3 Jun 2014)

How big do you need your house to be for it to feel like home? That’s the premise behind the documentary TINY: A Story About Living Small, now available on DVD, which highlights the growing “tiny house” movement in America.


The film, which was funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign, follows the story of Christopher Smith as he attempts to build a 124-square foot “tiny house” from scratch, with no prior construction experience and no blueprint to follow.


Over the course of the film, you’ll witness Smith build his entire home on a trailer. He does so because it’s actually illegal in many places across America to build such a small permanent dwelling. So, the wheels serve as more than an oddity for the filmmaker, they actually allow “tiny housers” like Smith to bypass tricky zoning laws and building codes. As a result, the entire tiny house movement is actually more rebellious in nature than you might have guessed.


Smith serves as co-director alongside his girlfriend Merete Mueller, so the couple spends a lot of time interviewing each other on camera. In addition to focusing on Smith’s humble construction project and showing you many other homes that could essentially fit into the average parking space, Smith and Mueller interview several other people across America who have chosen to downsize and live in houses that are less than 200 square feet.


Even so, the 62-minute film aims squarely at documenting Smith’s building project much more than it does at serving any grander ambitions as storytellers or revisionists of the American Dream.


Amidst a culture known for its material comfort, the film successfully poses the question, “What if less is more?” Unfortunately, it fails to reach its potential when it comes to answering that profound question. It presents some eye-opening information, like the fact that since 1970 the average house size in America has doubled even though the average family size is smaller, and it ponders what’s truly essential for a good home.


Ironically, however, TINY just doesn’t think big enough in its scope or scale. But, understandably, it’s not trying to.


If this subject matter sounds captivating to you, you’ll find the film enjoyable. If it doesn’t sound legitimately intriguing, there’s nothing in the filmmaking itself that will endear you to the documentary about tiny houses.


The slow pacing, folky background music, and diffident stars serve the film’s overall themes of mindfulness and simplicity well; no one’s expecting grandiose Michael Bay-style explosions in a documentary, especially this one. Yet, while you might be drawn into this unique housing movement by its eco-friendly message, defiant nature, and bizarre minimalism, Smith’s undertaking is unlikely to engross you as the focal point of the documentary. He’s a likeable fellow, and you root for him over the months that are captured on film, but as the star of the documentary, he doesn’t reveal enough personality or internal conflict to captivate.


The directors appear more interested in showing you, for example, Smith’s attempt at wiring the living room than exploring many significant details or interpersonal reasons behind why Smith is building a tiny house on a trailer in the middle of Colorado. In this sort of documentary telling the viewer “why” is as important as “how” though, and it’s not exactly here.


Even the external conflict, in which he’s building a house for the first time, albeit a diminutive one, is more polished than you’d expect. He talks about delays and mistakes, but you don’t really see them on screen. The film surprisingly doesn’t capture many blunders or lessons learned on the job site.


By the end of TINY, you may also be left wondering more about what it’s like actually living in such a tiny space. That seems like it could make for more interesting subject matter than the home’s construction, if any other filmmakers out there are looking for a fresh angle on the tiny house movement. What do you do if you need some time alone from your tiny house roommate; does one of you have to leave? Don’t you miss having a toilet that can flush? Where do you shower? Does a tiny house hold up during severe storms? How do you get new furniture through such a tiny door? And you must sit on the front porch a lot, right?


The documentary does, to the co-directors’ credit, include some beautiful cinematography of the Colorado landscape, from rainclouds rolling in to acres of wispy farmland on a blustery day to breathtaking sunrises over the state’s legendary mountains. Smith is quick to point out the stunning views seen from the plot of land on which he parks his tiny house, and rightfully so. Like one interviewee says after a panoramic shot of the outdoors, “The world gets a lot bigger when you’re living small… The whole world is now my living room.”

The real highlight in TINY, among the snippets of discussions and in-home tours with several tiny house owners, is the time spent with Dee Williams, a lady who’s become the unofficial spokeswoman of sorts for the entire movement. Inside her beautiful home, which measures roughly 84-square feet, she has the energy, wisdom, and charisma, not to mention the tiny house building experience, to carry a short documentary with ease. If you’ve seen the episode of Need to Know on PBS that highlighted both the tiny house movement and Williams (which is available on YouTube) you’ll find that in just nine minutes it covers more ground than TINY and has a more satisfying pace and sense of personality.


TINY alludes to the “McMansions” of modern consumer culture, but doesn’t attack those difficult subjects in depth, because it never really seems to have intended to. It follows Smith’s construction project and it does that fairly well. If only that journey were more interesting on its own. You could say its goal was—dare I say it—tiny. Consequently, there’s lots of drilling and sawing set to folksy tunes, if you’re into that sort of thing. 


However, despite its shortcomings, TINY is a worthwhile starting point if you’re interested in this big, big movement about sensible living and small, small houses. It’s guaranteed to make you think. Yes, the houses may be tiny, but the amount of conversation the documentary could inspire for its viewers about downsizing and excess might be anything but small.


The DVD edition includes several meaningful featurettes, like an insightful interview with Dee Williams and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Interestingly enough, the DVD case itself includes tips and practical advice for viewers who may be inspired to downsize after completing the documentary.

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Jeremiah Massengale is an assistant professor of communication arts at the University of the Cumberlands where he also advises the award-winning college newspaper.


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