Help us expand our reach! Please share this article
NEW YORK (CNS) -- "Live simply so that all may simply live." That's a saying often ascribed to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. If the attribution is accurate, the founder of the Sisters of Charity would likely have appreciated the surprisingly evocative documentary "The Minimalists: Less is Now."
Although somewhat repetitive, the hourlong film, which is streaming on Netflix, succeeds in challenging viewers to reassess the value they place on consumer goods.
Some may already be familiar with the protagonists of the title, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. The duo has a website and a popular Apple podcast. They were also featured in a previous Netflix movie, "Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things," helmed, like this project, by filmmaker Matt D'Avella.
"We can't consume more than the planet can replenish," Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, says in the prologue. It's not a matter of if we'll need to change, she suggests, but "how we're going to change." It will either be "by design or disaster," the activist concludes.
In addition to Leonard, a handful of other advocates and writers, also urge viewers to imagine how their lives might be lived with less. They're joined by a number of ordinary people who testify to the positive impact divesting from things has had on them.
Still, predictably, it's Millburn and Nicodemus who primarily drive home the program's message. Both 39 now, the best friends met in the fifth grade in Dayton, Ohio, bonded by the harsh realities of growing up amid poverty and scarred by their parents' divorces. Of the two, Millburn's narrative is more compelling.
Scenes in which he revisits the childhood home he shared with his mother after she separated from her husband constitute the documentary's most memorable moments, adding welcome texture to a show that often feels more like a sermonette.
After her split with his abusive dad -- who suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia and once put out a cigarette on his wife's bare chest -- he and his mom were forced to subsist on food stamps. In reaction, Millburn determined to "break the cycle of the meaning she lost" by making "a lot of money."
By the time he was 28, as a middle manager at a major corporation, Millburn recalls, "I had achieved everything I ever wanted," including "a big suburban house with more toilets than people."
But the collapse of his marriage and his mother's diagnosis with end-stage lung cancer reminded him that "our memories are not in our things," but "inside of us." As a result, he made the decision to give away 90 percent of what he owned in order to "contribute beyond myself in a meaningful way."
Along with the mature themes already mentioned, "The Minimalists" contains occasional crude language. Despite that, some parents may feel that its positive values and potential to educate make it acceptable for mature teens.
D'Avella's work is at its most affecting and endearing when it focuses on the personal, as it does with Millburn's reminiscences. By encouraging its audience to "donate, sell or recycle" what isn't essential, moreover, his film reminds viewers what each individual can do to help achieve sustainability.
- - -
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.