An Inconvenient Trudge
No Impact Man (2009)
In November 2007, Colin Beavan and his family concluded a yearlong “experiment” in which they used no form of carbon-emitting transportation, watched no television, used no electricity and ultimately made as minute an environmental impact as humanly possible. Zero impact was the initial intention, in fact; but the end result was closer to little than none. The fact that the world is still polluting and wasting energy in excess just as it was in November 2006 proves that Mr. Beavan’s endeavor hasn’t caused a worldwide change. Ironically, it’s precisely that questionable success of Mr. Beavan’s plan that gives “No Impact Man,” a documentary from Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein that chronicles the 365-day mission, its winning edge. The family’s good intentions aren’t used as abrasively guilt-pushing tactics, but as catalysts for a compelling study of the plights of nobility. Light and accessible in tone, “No Impact Man” succeeds as more of a human-interest piece than a green-conscious, save-the-world plea.
By using a hands-off approach to present their real-life stars as casual do-gooders, Ms. Gabbert and Mr. Schein permeate “No Impact Man” with a strong everyman quality. Mr. Beavan, a published author using his “No Impact” objective as the foundation of his next book, lives in Manhattan with his wife, Michelle Conlin, and two-year-old daughter, Isabella. Neither her nor Ms. Conlin are trained environmentalists, so their cold-turkey plan is handled with genuine uncertainty. As the experiment progresses, Mr. Beavan is met with resistance from both environmental talking heads and the general public. Some say that he’s using the publicity as a book-selling ploy, while others see his radical idea as a possible deterrent for regular folks who could become defensive toward forced guilt. Ms. Gabbert and Mr. Schein wisely focus on the debatable facets of Mr. Beavan’s actions. That’s where the heart of “No Impact Man” lies: He’s not set up to be holier than thou; he’s a self-aware Good Samaritan, the kind of guy able to laugh at himself, particularly when an online commenter attacks his making-of-his-literary-companion blog with “I can’t wait to wipe my ass with this book.” For an author watching his household’s toilet paper usage, that’s comedic gold.
“No Impact Man” would be the plodding equivalent of watching grass grow with a “I Hug Trees” T-shirt on if Mr. Beavan and Ms. Conlin weren’t so naturally engaging. Mr. Beavan, the soft-spoken straightman of the couple, never crosses over into whiny territory; and Ms. Conlin – the reluctant, sarcastic foil to her husband’s steadfast dedication – compliments him well. When Ms. Conlin opines over a TV set in an electronics store as if the idiot box were a long-lost friend, there’s a level of endearment inherent to the situation. A similar sympathy that comes with the sight of Mr. Beavan changing his daughter’s all-cloth diapers while explaining to the infant the downside of using toilet paper, or the father and child stomping dirty clothes in a water-filled bathtub in order to erase the washing machine from the laundry process. Pretension is deleted from “No Impact Man” alongside the family’s MetroCards.
Whether viewers will feel inspired or indifferent about environmentalism by the end of “No Impact Man” is intentionally left open to individual interpretation. Early into the film, a series of staggering statistics spoken by Mr. Beavan are quietly alarming, including how much trash the average American disposes of a year (1,600 pounds) and how many diapers make their way into landfills per day (49 million). By the midway point, it’s tough to not mentally plot one’s own version of “No Impact;” but then Mr. Beavan is seen calling the increasingly-difficult no-electricity phase “stupid,” and the truth of the process is broadcast loudly. Mr. Beavan has taken an extreme route to show the world that its collective treatment of the environment is suspect, one that is far from advisable.
“No Impact Man” has a predictably happy we-did-it ending, yet it’s earned and laudable. The case for environmental awareness is laid out and defended convincingly, but — most impressively — without head-beating force. Some documentaries, such as last year’s heart-tearing “Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son about His Father,” are meant to elicit a cavalcade of intense emotions through actual fact. “No Impact Man” doesn’t operate in that degree of devastation. It’s more comedy than drama; more case study than lecture — the feel-good “You’re doing badly, world” film of the year.
NO IMPACT MAN
Opens on Sept. 11 in New York and Los Angeles and on Sept. 3, 2010 in Britain.
Written and directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein; based on the book “No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process” by Colin Beavan; director of photography, Mr. Schein; edited by William Haugse and Matthew Martin; music by Bobby Johnston; produced by Ms. Gabbert and Eden Wurmfeld; released by Oscilloscope Laboratories (United States) and Dogwoof (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is not rated by MPAA and rated 15 by BBFC.