No Impact Man
Off the grid with an eco-warrior
‘No Impact Man’’ is a very confused documentary that somehow puts its confusion to good use. On the surface it’s a portrait of a wannabe eco-hero: Colin Beavan, a Manhattan husband and father who recently vowed to lead his family in a yearlong experiment to live with as little environmental impact as possible. That means no motorized travel, no electricity, local in-season foods only. Forget about air conditioning. Toilet paper? Don’t ask.
That Beavan’s trying to pull this off in New York City is a mark of boldness or foolishness or both - filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein never stop waffling on the matter. They have a wonderful foil in Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin,, a BusinessWeek writer and hardened city girl whose
Our sympathies initially lie with the wife because, frankly, the husband’s a twit. Beavan’s writing a book about his experiment and he seems equal parts green zealot and starry-eyed self-publicist. What kind of eco-Nazi makes his wife and daughter walk up nine flights of stairs rather than take the elevator? That Beavan is pushing his quixotic agenda while “sensitively’’ refusing to entertain Michelle’s desires for another child makes him seem even more obnoxious.
So you, too, might chortle with schadenfreude when Mr. No Impact Man hits the media hustings and is immediately pounced upon by bloggers, pundits, and hecklers of all convictions. It’s New York; what on earth was he expecting? This, ironically, is when “No Impact Man’’ starts to get interesting.
Rather than pampered yuppies toying with idealism, Beavan and family very slowly start to seem like explorers, and what they’re exploring is their surroundings as well as an idea. A bike trip ends in a beach day at the bottom of Brooklyn; they join a local group seeding the Hudson with oysters. By living a profoundly parallel urban existence, they’re freed into a world their fellow New Yorkers never see.
Working hypocrisies abound, of course, as do failed aspects of the experiment. Beavan unveils a homemade “natural’’ refrigerator but within weeks Michelle is reduced to borrowing ice from her neighbor’s freezer. “No Impact Man’’ implicitly wonders: Does it take a village rather than one family to make a difference? What about a city? Or the world?
In other words, the very things for which Beavan is roundly jeered become the movie’s challenge to its viewers. You want to make an impact? “No Impact Man’’ says it will be harder than you think and you won’t look particularly cool doing so.
Not surprisingly, you come out of the movie with mixed emotions, among them despair and an abiding anger toward Colin Beavan for reminding us of what we’re not doing to make the world a better place. Yet there’s hope to “No Impact Man’’ as well, and sometimes it takes the simple form of a shot of a wastepaper basket with two or three small items in it - the Beavans’ garbage for an entire week. It’s like Sinatra said: If you can make (do without) it there, you can make (do without) it anywhere. The movie leaves it up to you.