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“Secret Mall Apartment” Review: Quirky SXSW Documentary Offers an Intriguing Visit, but Not a Place You’d Call Home

“Executive produced by Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Workman’s film celebrates DIY artistry but falls short of fully investigating its depths.”

Secret Mall Apartment

In Providence, Rhode Island, amidst the housing crisis, a group of artists embarked on a unique solution: they clandestinely occupied a hidden space within their local mall for four years. This makeshift home, nestled within a symbol of gentrification, became a communal haven infused with anticapitalist ideals. “Secret Mall Apartment,” directed by Jeremy Workman and executive produced by Jesse Eisenberg, documents this audacious experiment, celebrating its DIY artistry while offering a modest exploration of its complexities.

The inception of this venture was serendipitous, born out of spontaneity rather than meticulous planning. Michael Townsend and three friends embarked on a challenge to outlast each other living within Providence Place Mall. Drawing upon a hazy recollection from the mall’s construction four years prior, Townsend stumbled upon a forgotten space—a “nowhere” alcove in the architecture that had remained vacant since the mall’s inception. What began as a one-night refuge evolved into a long-term residency, lasting four years until their eventual departure.

The choice of Providence Place Mall as the setting for these events holds significant symbolism. When the mall opened in 1999, it was heralded as a beacon of economic rejuvenation for Providence. However, many residents perceived it as inaccessible, situated as a literal boundary between affluent and neglected neighborhoods. The space itself, an unadorned annex with stark cinderblock walls, exudes a peculiar charm reminiscent of a low-budget sitcom set—simultaneously inviting and austere.

For Townsend and his compatriots, occupying the mall wasn’t driven solely by economic necessity but by a desire to act as self-proclaimed “micro-developers,” repurposing overlooked spaces. They embarked on their venture as a challenge, spurred by a mix of jest and determination to see how long they could sustain it. Gradually, their lighthearted experiment evolved into a full-fledged residency, complete with furnishings and personal touches within the 750-square-foot area. Despite the legal ambiguity surrounding their activities, the existence of “Secret Mall Apartment” owes much to Townsend’s diligent documentation. Grainy footage captures their escapades, from maneuvering through narrow passages to hoisting thrift-store finds up ladders, imbuing the documentary with a raw, lived-in atmosphere reflective of their original intentions.

The film loses much of its intrigue when it veers away from the central focus on the secret apartment. A significant portion of screen time is dedicated to portraying Townsend in a favorable light, with testimonials from friends and segments highlighting his altruistic endeavors, such as creating murals for a children’s hospital and a 9/11 memorial. These moments feel overly reverential, bordering on hagiographic, detracting from the film’s coherence. It almost appears as though “Secret Mall Apartment” was stretched to feature length from a more concise short, with additional material inserted later on.

Furthermore, there’s a palpable sense of voyeurism permeating the narrative. It becomes apparent that nobody lived in the space full-time, with Townsend’s then-wife expressing frustration in contemporaneous footage about their neglect of their actual home in favor of his passion project. This revelation transforms the secret apartment from a genuine living space into more of a recreational clubhouse. It’s only towards the end of the film that the filmmakers begin to scrutinize the underlying motivations behind the experiment, rather than simply accepting its purported benevolence at face value.

In a surreal turn of events, the filmmakers reconstruct the apartment on a soundstage and orchestrate a reenactment of the moment when Townsend was ultimately discovered—a sequence that exudes a light surrealism reminiscent of Nathan Fielder’s “The Rehearsal.” This meta-narrative device highlights the paradoxical nature of capturing reality through the lens of a camera, where the depiction can simultaneously amplify and diminish its authenticity. This duality is particularly fitting for a four-year period during which a previously overlooked space metamorphosed into a semblance of home.

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