No Impact Man

Dir: Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein

Rating 3.5/5.0


90 Minutes

If every one became a “No Impact Man” for one year, the U.S. economy would sink sharply into an economic depression that no government could forestall. And yet, there is a large and growing body of scientific evidence to support the conclusion that we must find ways to live sustainably. In an odd and unexpected manner, No Impact Man opens up a most treasonous of notions. It questions what it is to be an American, not based upon political ideology, but at an even more fundamental level: our role as consumers in the most capitalistic and materialistic society on Earth.

In the heart of 5th Avenue in lower Manhattan, an idealistic husband, a reluctant wife and their very young daughter Isabella, embark on a year-long transition into a Spartan, crunchy, caffeine-free lifestyle that leaves behind a zero carbon footprint. That means: no plastic bottles, no restaurant food, no coffee shops, no shopping for any new clothes or new products, no cars or taxis (mostly bicycle transportation), no elevators (they live on the ninth floor), no electricity, no laundry machines or detergent, no shopping at supermarkets for food. Worst of all, no toilet paper.

Technically, Colin Beavan, an author and magazine writer by trade, is the movie’s principal character and mastermind behind the No Impact Man project. However, it is his wife, Michelle Conlin, avowed fashion and coffee addict and senior writer at Business Week magazine, who saves the movie from becoming merely a guilty liberal exercise. Her presence is absolutely invaluable; she’s naturally witty and interesting, and provides a significant counterpoint. At the beginning of the project she tells Isabella “Mom doesn’t really like nature, but dad likes nature.” Conlin begins as the cynical voice of reason and practicality but slowly comes to embrace and celebrate their new way of life. To some degree, she becomes the audience surrogate, and that’s a valuable storytelling tool that is too often missing from documentary films.

It’s not exactly smooth-sailing for the back-to-nature family. Beavan is not a knowledgeable environmentalist and struggles with unfamiliar concepts and technology, including making compost out of trash in worm boxes and a refrigeration device with two ceramic pots, while blogging about his efforts from home, looking after Isabella and doing the household shores and
shopping at the neighborhood farmers’ market. The marriage begins to grow strained, with Conlin particularly stressed by the project’s seasonal dietary requirements and “not allowed to eat anything that tastes good.” While getting her hair colored at a beauty salon, she confesses to a friend that she cheats by tipping the Dunkin Donuts clerk to refill her cup right after she downs the first. Beavan’s No Impact Man blog and extensive media attention add another layer of anxiety. Their sincerity and motives are questioned and they are called (even by environmentalists), among many things, “bourgeois fucks” and “fringe wackos.” Conlin becomes concerned that they are becoming a public mockery and that she’ll lose her job as a result.

The film is well-assembled and compelling; the filmmakers stay focused on a character-driven approach, interpreting the couple’s struggles through the ups and downs in their relationship as they deal with increasingly difficult issues, such their conflicting views on having a second child. The documentary’s biggest strength is its great emotional story and the natural tension between two individuals, each trying to pursue their own dream, and making it a shared experience. By taking personal action, to explore what it means to live without leaving an impact on the environment, they both must take a step back from life, and re-examine with fresh eyes their connections to the world, and their support for each other.

The picture arrives at an open, modest and unassuming ending without the moralizing and monologues of most documentaries of this nature. That kind of caution is admirable; the content and ideas of No Impact Man could easily veer into the territory of the overbearing, but the naturalistic filmmaking and engaging personalities of the people involved keep it light and nimble while remaining contemplative and informative. Not looking for cheap answers or pseudo, feel-good analysis, in a fascinating, uncomfortable scene, one of Beavan’s friends, an organic gardener with a small plot of open land in the city, unflinchingly tells him what he feels about his project. He points out that trees are chopped down to publish Business Week, which “promotes the fully fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people and that if ‘it’s your contention that she makes up for it–that it evens out–because she doesn’t take the elevator in your Fifth Avenue co-op, I have to say, you are either dishonest or delusional.” When those kinds of harsh, but honest and complicated ideas become a part of the dialogue, No Impact Man is thoughtful, complex, downright fascinating viewing.

While watching I couldn’t help but think of a few easy ways to help the environment myself. No Impact Man, an inspirational, revealing and emphatic back-to-nature documentary will likely leave you rethinking your consumption habits and asking yourself whether you’re doing your best to preserve the planet.

by Teri Carson
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