The new film Wanderlust is not likely to be a commercial hit, but because the community parodied is similar to where I live, I wanted to write an insiders review.
Since I reveal the unsurprising conclusion, I would encourage you to watch the movie first if you have an interest. For me the film was entertaining, in part because it satirizes my life choices.
Here is the trailer for the film:
In the film, the main characters, a hectic New York City couple, lose their livelihood options and decide to stay with relatives in Atlanta. On the way down, they stumble upon a bed and breakfast run by a throw back hippie commune (which we are told has been re-branded an “intentional community”) and have an initially shocking, but mostly pleasant experience. After a brief failed effort to resettle in Atlanta, they decide to try the commune for two weeks to see if they like it. Much mayhem ensues. The film stars Jennifer Aniston, who I desperately wish would get less ditzy roles and Paul Rudd, who creates some highly uncomfortable yet quite comic moments in this film.
Despite my troubles with the film, I do have to give credit to the writers for having done their research on 60s/70s back-to-the-land communes, or perhaps listening carefully to someone who had spent a lot of time there. The film captures many aspects of this style of community precisely.
When the couple returns to the commune to try out their new life, they find the beautiful bed and breakfast room has been replaced by a stark small room. It is certainly true that where I live the rooms are fairly small as contrasted to most middle class bedrooms, and while there are a myriad other spaces and amenities, private personal space is compressed. The minimal furnishings in the film are consistent with what we offer new members. We would never bait and switch a prospective new member like this, however, for it is trust killing. Instead, before someone decides to live with us, they tour all the residences and see many representative rooms.
To add insult to injury the stark bedroom our heroes end up in has no door. The charismatic leader explains that doors separate people and they want to create a more connected culture. While we never did this with doors to peoples individual rooms, it was certainly the case that there were some toilets which were not hidden away in stalls in the bathrooms in the community when I arrived. Mostly, these have since been covered up with curtains, but there once was definitely the idea/belief that we wanted to move people away from the shame of naked bodies. The movie ends with Rudd closing the door to his “small and expensive” apartment, symbolic of creating the space and privacy which he needs. And while there would not be a group of people watching and waiting for someone to finish using the toilet, as in the film, there is truth that the commune has different ideas about privacy and body image.
A Hollywood film could not have its heroes decide to stay on the commune. The plot does have Aniston getting to the place of loving the commune, “feeling part of something for the first time,” and wanting to stay, which was strangely validating for me as a recruiter. We recently had a couple who just graduated from Dartmouth come and live at Twin Oaks for a year, and when he was ready to leave and pursue law school, she decided that she wanted to stay and enjoy the “good life.”
I am inspired to go through some of the key points from this parody partly because they need to be confessed, mostly because they need to be debunked.
Sharing: One amusing scene in the film is when one communard asks the city folk heroes to borrow their car, “because we share everything here,” and then puts their car in the middle of the lake. I have written often about sharing systems and how this is the aspect of the communities movement that should be exported to the mainstream. As we would expect from a Hollywood film, they get the stuff about sharing wrong. What is depicted mimics the brittle, casual, poorly formulated sharing approaches common in the mainstream. It is because of these problems that functioning communities carefully design sharing systems to be robust and fault tolerant.
Truth Circle: One interesting scene is where the heroes are invited to a “Truth Circle” in which they are pushed and heckled, but ultimately both say things of significance that they were withholding from each other. This mimics our transparency group work (and lots of mainstream folx personal growth work, communes have no monopoly on these techniques). But, as happened with some regularity in the film, while the commune culture was being parodied, it was also pointing out how it addresses and heals the failures of the mainstream culture. At the point where Aniston’s character somewhat dramatically reveals her inner feelings about her husband who is sitting beside her, the commune charismatic leader says, “Linda, I think you have just met Linda.” This is exactly what we do on a good day.
Free Love: No movie about communes would be complete without the promiscuous sex theme. This was actually handled better than I had guessed it might be. Jennifer Aniston pleads with her partner to go have sex with someone else after she has sex with the commune’s charismatic leader, so that they would be balanced. Their sloppy agreements around their forays outside of monogamy were certainly reminiscent of many enthusiastic newbies trying to figure out the complex material of open relationships. And while sexually permissive subcultures make great fodder for comic scenes, my experience is that the real discussions around open relationships (at least my commune) are deeper, more emotionally complex and far better thought out. While some communities definitely experimented with a “free love” model, the results often proved to be explosive. Less destabilizing, but still quite radical, is a more committed polyamory model, where partners have multiple romantic interests that they are being honest about. It was completely realistic that the film heroes could not make these complex intimacy models work. What is unrealistic is that their dance partners in the film would be naïve enough to think they could jump into open relationships without any guidance or training.
Drugs: Another classic commune stereotype depicted in the film is that most of the members are drug crazed or addled. The scene where Rudd is asked by Aniston, “Are you stoned?” makes for an amusing moment in the film, but does little to recognize that early in the list of causalities in the communities movement were the places where people sat around and got high all day. Turns out that the accounting does not work when everyone is high, and these places oft crumble and fall apart like tumble weeds.
Sneaking away for Steaks: One scene shows the founder of the commune with Aniston at a diner after they have independently fled from the commune’s vegan diet to get some “real food” – specifically steak. There are certainly some vegetarian and vegan intentional communities out there (especially on the spiritual side of the communities movement). But, far more use the “embrace diversity” platform, which does not dictate food choices to members. This is not to say that meat lovers are fully satisfied at Twin Oaks, but they are certainly not shamed about their choices either. I always appreciated the approach at our sister community Acorn where excellent vegan food is regularly served (with other options as well), making it easy for people to believe that if the food was this good, they could have this unusual and healthy diet choice.
Commune versus “Intentional Community”: It is true that places like where I live no longer principally refer to themselves as communes, and we instead call ourselves intentional communities. But, the terms are hardly interchangeable. A commune is a type of community where deep sharing is widely adopted; there is an effort made to be fair in terms of distribution of resources and credit is given for different types of work done. Intentional communities are any group of people who are selecting who they live with (rather than a landlord or real estate agent doing it), usually with at least some broad shared believes. Intentional communities include student co-ops, co-housing complex’s, ashrams and communes. There are a few dozen secular communes in the U.S., there are over 800 intentional communities, including all of these communes.
Versus cults: What is not included in this broad range of intentional communities is some unknown number of cults that exist in this country. This is because one of the two rules the big federation of communities has is that members can leave when they want (though sometimes they have to sell their apartments or houses). Cults are not as easy to leave. Typically, cults have living charismatic leaders, require you to turn over your assets to them when joining and discourage dissent or challenging the central authorities beliefs. The mainstream media often confuses cults and communities. When I ask college students what is the first thing which comes to mind when they hear the word commune, they often reply “Waco” or “Jonestown.” Just as the mainstream media prefers to depict polyamory as multiple underaged wives forced to have sex with their zealot husband instead of the far more common healthy open relationships, believing what they say about communes is like trusting Fox News.
Twinkling: One of the precious parodies in the film is around communards rubbing their fingers together to express approval, rather than noisier clapping. This is actually not directly a parody of the commune culture, but rather larger consensus culture, where twinkling (wiggling your fingers in palms forward hands) is a silent expression of approval. It is part of a collection of hand signs, which are useful for both facilitators and other members in the decision making process. While the casual movie goer is amused by this seemingly foolish custom, it is actually an example of the counterculture working in a way which is oft preferable to the mainstream’s information-thinner manner.
Drinking the Kool-Aid: When the films heroes realize that the commune is the wrong life for them, Rudd says to Aniston that he “drank the Kool-Aid and then made some more.” Wikipedia tells me that, “drinking the Kool-Aid” means that one is unquestioningly buying into someone else’s ideology, without critical examination. A reference to the Jonestown cult mass suicide/murder in 1978. It is here I feel the most animated.
The life in the commune that is depicted in the film is largely sustainable, crime free, largely fair and colorful (like my commune). The urban life the film’s heroes hail from and retreat to is on a collision course with climate change and peak oil, crime pained, while also appearing abrasively stratified and grey washed. If you ask me who drank the mind altering hypnotic drug, my response is most clear.
Editor: Cassandra Smith
Paxus Calta has lived at Twin Oaks community in central Virginia for 14 years, where he co-manages the hammocks business and recruiting, makes tofu, home schools his son and blogs. Read more from Paxus at funologist.org.