Thursday, September 10, 2009

In Theaters: "No Impact Man"

Colin Beavan’s heart is in the right place, but you can see how he’d be a little insufferable. No Impact Man is the documentary account of how he decided that he was going to spend one year making no environmental impact. He did it as an experiment, and also to provide himself with subject matter (Beavan is an author—he kept a blog throughout the project and just published a book about the experience); more importantly, it gave the self-proclaimed “guilty liberal” the chance to put his money where his mouth is.

The rules of the “no impact” year are multitude: no automated transportation (biking only), no non-local food, no material consumption, no new clothes, no trash generation, no packaging. No meat and no television (there’s the part where you’d have to count me out). Six months in, no electricity. And (gulp) no toilet paper.

What keeps No Impact Man, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, from descending into the well-intentioned but dull rhythms of most liberal eco-docs is the fact that Colin doesn’t take on the experiment alone: he also has a two-year old daughter (she’s charming and good on camera, which helps) and a wife, Michelle, who writes for Business Week and loves her retail and Starbuck’s coffees. Her presence in the picture is absolutely invaluable; she’s funny and interesting, and provides a valuable counterpoint, particularly in the early scenes.

Gabbert and Schein’s cameras clearly had full access to the Beavan family throughout the year-long project, observing some difficult conversations between the married couple. If some of it feels somewhat set up, or at least amped up for the camera, it is at least acknowledged; at one point, Colin remarks, “This feels like a reality show, to have this conversation on camera.” But the film is unquestionably well-assembled and compelling, particularly in the section dealing with the media scrutiny his experiment generated (some of it critical and mean-spirited). And not every critical voice is on the page or on the Internet—in one fascinating, uncomfortable scene, the organic gardener who Colin is working with takes him to task for his wife’s place of business. He notes that trees are chopped down for the magazine, which “promote(s) the fully fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people” and tells the writer 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 conversation, No Impact Man is thoughtful, complex, downright fascinating viewing.

And in many ways, Michelle sort of saves the movie; she begins as the cynical voice of reason and practicality (a naturally sympathetic position, thanks to both her natural wit and the extremity of the project) but, through the duration of the film, 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 (due to the nature of the beast). The picture doesn’t really come to a definite ending—it ends more with a dash than a period—but I prefer that kind of modest, unassuming ending to the moralizing and monologues of something like Super Size Me (which the filmmakers pinpoint as an influence). 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 parties involved keep the documentary light and nimble while remaining contemplative and informative.

"No Impact Man" opens in limited release on Friday, September 11th.

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