Secret Mall Apartment is the kind of documentary that sneaks up on you. The premise is sure to catch the eye of curious viewers. The one-line pitch is that it’s about a group of people who found space in a Rhode Island mall and turned it into an apartment. Sounds amusing, right? Well, it is. It’s also much more. It’s a political statement, a prank, and a deeply humane story, all in one.

In 2003, a group of artists, led by Michael Townsend, concocted a plan to live in the Providence Place mall in Providence, Rhode Island. They found a way to get into the back areas of the building, and then found an area big enough for a living space. So, they set about setting up furniture and making the space into a home. They brought in furniture, a PlayStation 2, and pictures to give the apartment a homely feel. All they were really missing was water, but, hey, they had a whole mall full of public restrooms at their disposal. 

There are a few points in the film where the charm of the secret apartment threatens to wear off, but director Jeremy Workman wisely expands the scope of the story. It’s a necessary move that gives Secret Mall Apartment a surprising depth. Every American city has its own story of gentrification to tell, and this mall is part of Providence’s. The location of the mall serves as a line of demarcation for the city. Even the entrances to the mall are difficult to access from the less desirable side of the building. Michael and his co-conspirators used to live in a building that was cleared out to make room for the mall. So, their plan to live in the mall has the tinge of revenge, making it more than a lark.  

The film has plenty of amusing anecdotes about the issues one might encounter when setting up an apartment that is startlingly close to thousands of daily visitors. These instances are good for a laugh, like the story of the group lugging over a ton of cinderblocks into the mall to build a wall to hide their domicile. Or the stolen PlayStation incident. But the film ascends in the back half as it digs deeper into the group. This is when Secret Mall Apartment goes from entertaining to a quintessential story of humanity.

As an artist, Michael routinely works in a children’s hospital, making murals out of masking tape. He collaborates with the kids, getting ideas and help from those physically capable. It’s genuinely heartwarming. It also gets into the essential ephemeral nature of…everything. Art, life, connection. The film details the Hope Project, a 9/11 memorial that took five years to complete. The overriding theme that emerges is the idea that meaning is where you make it.

In the end, Michael and his roommates kept the apartment going for four years before getting caught. It was just one of many fleeting, yet memorable, things they accomplished together. It was never going to last forever, nor was that the intent. But it makes for a hell of a story.

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