When you need a cozy hideaway from responsibilities, what’s easier than sitting down with Netflix and some snacks?

No, Fido, not those kinds of snacks! Thank goodness Netflix now does instant-streaming. Image courtesy Wikimedia. No, Fido, not those kinds of snacks! Thank goodness Netflix now does instant-streaming. (Image courtesy Wikimedia.)

We’ve taken a look at Netflix (perhaps more than we should haveno shame!), and scoured their documentary section for movies to share with you! Here listed are our top 5 picks, for movies that are engaging, thought-provoking, and stirring. Netflix can be more than just entertainment, and you should feel good about watching programs that challenge your worldview.

So the next time you’re hankering for a good show (and one that’s less commitment than an entire season of Orange is the New Blackgoodbye, 13 hours of the day!), click on over to these documentaries, and get educated.

I. Addicted to Plastic (2008)


Addicted to Plastic follows the course of one man as he uncovers the impact on plastic use around the world. They complete nearly 50 interviews and visit 12 countries, and the results are terrifying and staggering. And what’s worse, so much of our plastic is single-use. This means that we use it, and then, because it cannot biodegrade, it just sits in our landfills and falls into our water supplies and makes people, animals, and plants sick.

We here at Groundswell are no fans of plastic, as you may have learned from our recent posts on US cities banning plastic foam in restaurants. But we’re still part of a community, and a country, that truly is addicted to the use of plastic. Plastic is incredibly useful and versatile, but we’ve become so dependent without carefully monitoring its use. Watching this movie (with a hilarious and strangely pleasant soundtrack) was a wake-up call, in a way that was engaging and honest. The host, Ian Connacher, makes the difficult subject matter pretty easy to follow. You’ll feel responsible to make changes (big and small) once checking this out.

II. Miss Representation (2011)


Miss Representation, written and directed by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, is a close and gritty look at the way media portrays women and femininity today. Why aren’t more women in positions of power? Why is the US 90th in terms of equality for women and men, in countries around the world? Why should women in power be grilled about their potential “mood swings” or their fashion choices? With interviews from activists, politicians, women in media, and academics, such as Condoleezza Rice, Katie Couric, and Gloria Steinem (bow down), to young women in middle and high school, Miss Representation asks the tough questions. The message that is delivered through the film is nonpartisan, clear, and direct: we must change the message about women that we deliver to our population, for everyone’s sake. This movie makes you angry, but it doesn’t leave you without agency.

III. What Plants Talk About (2013)


Plants are smart– definitely smarter than you think! They can move, adapt, change, and even do battle against each other (or against non-plants). In What Plants Talk About, which is a PBS documentary, you can follow plant ecologist J.C. Cahill as he uncovers just how plants talk, what they say when they do, and how they communicate. You’re taken deep into the ground to watch roots grow and navigate each other, and around the world as Cahill explains his lifelong research in the ways plants behave. The tone is humorous and lighthearted, but the facts are evident, and the way you think about plants may never be the same.

NOTE: there is still no way to ask the weeds in your front yard to move on over to your neighbor’s lawn.

IV. A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism (2009)


A Mother’s Courage: Talking Back to Autism is a tough watchyou shouldn’t check this show out unless you’re okay with an emotional roller coaster. The show, which is narrated by the Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet, chronicles the life of a woman from Iceland, as she sets out to learn more about her son’s nonverbal autism. Told by doctors to institutionalize her son because he was severely cognitively impaired, she instead stumbles upon a way to help him express himself, challenging the notion that autism is an intellectual disability.

So many of us don’t understand autism because it’s something we choose not to see. But for so many others, autism is a daily reality, and these people must fight regularly to help others see and hear them. Through the lens of the camera, this movie gives its viewers a personal look into a family within the autism community. That’s especially important right now, because the autism community has been in equal parts ignored, misunderstood, and abused in the media of late, with the anti-vaccine debate.

And most fundamentally, you watch a mother and son gain the ability to communicate with each other through modern technology. How powerful is that?

V. Tiny (A Story about Living Small) (2013)


By now, you’ve probably heard of the Tiny House Movement, where people—who are otherwise not carpenters/builderschoose to leave large, cluttered lives in favor of “tiny houses,” or small homes, designed to fit in spaces of less than 200 square feet, often on wheels (to bypass building and zoning laws). Owners of tiny homes reap the benefits of living simply financially and environmentally, with the houses often costing a fraction of a regular house to build and install energy efficiency measures (like solar panels). Tiny houses challenge the presumption that bigger is better, and this film shows just how a tiny house can come together. Co-directors/producers and couple Merete Mueller and Christopher Smith work together to tell the story of Christopher’s tiny house, and sprinkle in stories of other people who live in Tiny Houses.

The film itself was funded through Kickstarter, and the social media following of the film is impressive. But where the film shines is in its storytelling ability; Mueller and Smith shine a light on an incredible idea with a reach far beyond the Tiny House community. As an expert states in the trailer, “We don’t all have to give up all our material possession and live in 89-square feet, but let’s think about maybe giving up our McMansions and building a little smarter.” Truer words, man.

What are your favorite documentaries from Netflix (or elsewhere)? Which ones changed your perspective? Share with us in the comments below!

Kelsey Ryan is the editor of Groundswell’s magazine. She’s a linguist, fledgling Tolkien scholar, knitter, Oxford comma proponent, and firm believer in the use of stories for social good. Explore her website, or connect on Twitter: @kryanlion.