Reviewed by Bill Locke
A Small Good Thing, a new film by Pamela Tanner Boll, documents the fascinating story of six very different people who take a sharp turn and end up on a distinctly new path in life. Fueled by dissatisfaction, all six have one thing in common – a desire to focus on “the greater good” instead of individual ambition. They also seek a healthier, more integrated way of being, with stronger connections to family, community, and the natural world.
Boll, who is the film’s director and executive producer, was co-producer of the Academy Award winning documentary Born into Brothels. Her latest film, A Small Good Thing, examines whether our culture’s “more is better” philosophy has delivered on its promise of contentment and fulfillment.
The feature-length film, recent winner of best documentary at the Boston International Film Festival, is set in western Massachusetts, in the rural “Berkshires” region. The area is renowned for its pastoral landscape dotted with farms and woodlands, quaint villages and small towns, and has long attracted artists, musicians, spiritual seekers and outdoor enthusiasts. Norman Rockwell lived here in his later years, and drew inspiration from the homespun community life and bucolic countryside.
During the course of the film, we get to know the back-stories of the six people being profiled. Each takes a crooked path, bit-by-bit discovering their direction, and ultimately finding their way. Their common destination is a simpler life with less money but more purpose, in community with other like-minded people.
Sean Stanton became disillusioned with life while serving with the U.S. Coast Guard. Shirley Edgerton is a black grandmother, formerly a shy, fearful pastor’s wife, who becomes a passionate community activist engaging young people through music and dance. Tim Durran had fallen into a life of drugs and addiction before shifting to a whole new lifestyle that includes competitive cycling, social work, and re-discovering his Aboriginal roots. Jen and Peter Salinetti are a well-educated couple with two kids who decide to take up farming vegetables, and blossom as teachers and activists as they travel to Rwanda to show villagers how to garden and compost. Mark Gerow was filled with guilt for leaving a dysfunctional marriage and young children. He finds new life and peace as a yoga instructor, while also reconnecting with his two young sons.
Though from different backgrounds, all six find their unique calling and start to shine, serving in their communities, eating healthier, discovering purpose. Shirley Edgerton describes her journey and new life as founder, leader and den mother of “Youth Alive”, her step dance and drumming performance group, this way: “I was drawn into doing what I feel I was born to do.”
A Small Good Thing also calls upon a variety of experts to give commentary on trends and pitfalls in our consumer-driven society. Folks such as environmentalist Bill McKibben, social psychologist Dacher Keltner and economist Jeremy Rifkin weigh in, to great effect, on the science and meaning of human happiness.
The film sheds an unfiltered light on much of the discontent in western culture that we hear about every day. But, as it points out, deconstruction is messy. Human nature discourages us from tearing up our hard-won victories, whether they are good for us or not, and setting off down a new, riskier road. The first step, demonstrated by the subjects in the film, involves acknowledging the mess before we can reconstruct a more beautiful pattern for the future. This is mirrored in the first half of the documentary, which is somewhat confusing as we skip back and forth between the stories and struggles. However, it gives us a taste of the chaos that its subjects must undergo before they find their way forward, and sets us up for the personal and spiritual transformation to come.
A Small Good Thing asks the question, “So what does it take to live a good life?” It’s a great question to reflect upon, and seeing how six individuals try their best to work it out deepens that reflection. Witnessing their trials, seeing them make adjustments as they learn new lessons, and celebrating their little triumphs makes for very stimulating and thought-provoking viewing.
Personally, it led me to examine my own path. It also made me think about how Christ got it right when He told his disciples – and us – that paradoxically we must die to have life. It seems we are made to go through a process of kenosis, to make ourselves radically available for others and for the Divine, if we are to find fulfillment. We come to understand that we are made for community. Consciousness, the awakening to what is, goes along with that discovery process.
Without asking the right questions, as this film does, we might miss out on finding out what life is ultimately all about.
Visit A Small Good Thing website for more information.
A Small Good Thing may be found on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Vudu, and Netflix (U.S.)