Filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein spent a year recording a mission of liberal advocacy—so it’s all the more satisfying to find that No Impact Man isn’t just another liberal-advocacy documentary.
For the record: There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with liberal-advocacy documentaries. There’s also nothing inherently right with liberal-advocacy documentaries. Documentary filmmakers over the last several years have often approached their subject as though its self-evident moral superiority were sufficient reason to have committed it to HD video. Sometimes, you get something like The Cove, which is actually a compelling movie beyond its agenda. Just as often, you get earnest, feature-length public service announcements.
No Impact Man has a message to convey, and does a pretty decent job of doing it. But it does so by virtue of telling a story—and it works because we care about that story as much as we care about an issue.
The story in question is a year in the life of one Manhattan family: freelance writer Colin Beavan; his wife, Business Week reporter Michelle Conlin; and their 2-year-old daughter, Isabella. In late 2006, Beavan launches a blog dedicated to an intriguing social experiment: He and his family will spend a year attempting to have zero negative environmental impact. That means buying no new consumer products, eating only locally grown and in-season food, using no carbon-powered transportation or electricity and generating no trash.
For Colin, enthusiasm for the project—his attempt to live a lifestyle in accordance with his professed values—is evident. For Michelle … not so much. A 21st-century city woman of the first order, Michelle cringes at the thought of giving up shopping, reality television, take-out food and coffee. There’s a natural dramatic tension built into their clashes over how far they’re prepared to go during that year, and Michelle’s often-hilarious efforts either to find excuses and “workarounds” to avoid the hardest sacrifices, or just plain cheat.
But the family dynamic in No Impact Man is also considerably more than an eco-conscious spin on Green Acres. What emerges as we watch one family shift their lifestyle is a sense for how much communal activity is lost in the modern era. Tending a community garden plot becomes a chance to build new friendships; the absence of television results in social gatherings full of conversation and games. And Colin and Michelle begin to interact with their daughter in a way that turns mundane household chores—like washing the laundry—into opportunities for play. The joy in the film comes from the realization that this isn’t merely an exercise in self-deprivation, but in finding how much can be gained by veering from the easiest possible route.
Gabbert and Schein do also spend time on statistics and the nuts-and-bolts details of the “No Impact Year,” and here their success is considerably more mixed. We get to watch the frustrations and failures—like a apartment compost box that becomes a breeding ground for flies—as much as the successes, and follow with fascination as the family deals with nay-sayers who can’t seem to get past the issue of them not using toilet paper. But there are also promotional trips to talk shows and visits to local farms to investigate environmentally gentle practices—all of them cheating on the “no carbon-powered transportation” part of the project, and little of it adding much to the story of the family’s personal journey.
At one point, Colin muses about his own doubts, wondering if the “No Impact Year” is simply a self-righteous exercise. But, as the year winds down and he begins to process his experience in public addresses, we begin to fully understand the power of becoming more consciously, fully engaged with one’s choices in the world. Maybe those lifestyle changes ultimately contribute to changing the world; maybe they just end up changing one family. The kick of No Impact Man is that it shows, rather than simply telling, the human experience of realizing that there’s no such thing as a choice without an impact.
Join Scott Renshaw for a post-film discussion after the 7 p.m. showtime of No Impact Man at the Tower Theatre on Friday, Oct. 2.
NO IMPACT MAN