One Big Home


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

One Big Home
"One Big Home is a remarkably moderate, grown up piece of work."

Every year brings a new crop of campaigning documentaries. They vary in quality, in method, in observational skill, but there are very few in which the narrator or lead change their minds, very few which conclude by looking for sensible middle of the road solutions. One Big Home is a remarkably moderate, grown up piece of work which really stands out in the current climate and will give US cinemagoers something refreshingly different to engage with.

The setting for the film is Martha's Vineyard, the large island off the coast of Massachusetts which people elsewhere in the world will be familiar with as a US presidential retreat. It is, in fact, a retreat for a good many prosperous Americans who have fallen in love with its gently rolling hills and unspoilt beaches, and have decided to build homes there. This is the problem. A map resembling the game Plague Inc shows the creeping effect of house building on the island over the decades, turning a rural paradise into something that threatens to become just another suburb. To make it worse, 57% of these homes are unoccupied for most of the year, used only as holiday retreats, yet they're still heated, contributing to climate change. And the size of the homes - that's getting more and more ridiculous.

Copy picture

It's the size of them that really started to get to carpenter Thomas Bena. He had been generally against house building, having focused much of his life on travelling, but ended up building a home for his family on the island after the old house he purchased proved too damaged by time to be saved. Had he sold out? He worried about that, but also found himself more sympathetic to the desire of those with money to enjoy the good life, reflecting on the experiences and postponed ambitions of the immigrants from whom many of them are descended. It was as he saw the houses he was building getting bigger and bigger that he became convinced that there had to be a point where all this must stop, and he began campaigning for a change in local planning regulations, and began making this documentary.

How much room does one family need? That might depend on how they relate to the world. Bena takes in the massive complexes with swimming pools right beside the ocean, with cinemas and bowling alleys in the basement. He also talks about community, leaving the viewer to consider whether these things are unacceptably extravagant or whether the real problem is that it would make much more sense to share them. How much is all this building really a product of a drive to separate, to live apart from other people? Ironically, that's a lot of what attracts people to island life, and many long term residents of Martha's Vineyard see their community as culturally separate from the rest of the US.

Bena talks to a woman moving into one of the houses he has criticised. He hears about the problems her family is facing and the meaning of the house shifts, taking audience sympathies with it. The desire for the personal, the special, is ultimately not hard to understand. The difficulty lies in balancing it with the needs of others, and of the world. He also interviews a member of the Wampanoag tribe who reflects on the island's history, on the pre-existing culture of shared ownership and how the allocation of land to individual tribespeople made them vulnerable to buyouts. In another rare move, care is taken to avoid presenting pre-Columbian life as idyllic, but the point is still important - this isn't the only way to live and it may not be the best.

Intelligent and thoughtful throughout, One Big Home starts out with bias and ends up with one of the fairest assessments of a complex cultural issue seen on our screens in recent years. Quiet and unassuming, it reflects an approach to problem solving that we could all do with more of.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2017
Share this with others on...
A carpenter investigates the gentrification of Martha's Vineyard.

Director: Thomas Bena

Year: 2016

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US


Search database: