It’s not clear whether Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, the directors of the new documentary No Impact Man (Oscilloscope Pictures), know how irritating their protagonist is. In the fall of 2006, Colin Beavan, a New York-based writer, embarked on a project to reduce his family’s environmental footprint to a bare minimum, an experience he would turn into a blog and later a book. Along with his wife, Michelle Conlin, a writer for the thoroughly un-green periodical Business Week, and their 2-year-old daughter Isabella, Beavan would go one year without using any nonself-propelled transportation, eating any nonlocally grown food, or even riding an elevator to their ninth-floor apartment. The family would eschew electricity, commercial cleaning products, retail shopping, and toilet paper.
Colin Beavan’s self-important solemnity, and the passive-aggressive pleasure he seems to take in depriving others of their pleasure, makes reducing your environmental footprint look so unappealing that you want to drive straight to McDonald’s in a Humvee. And yet the film’s refusal to either idealize or ridicule its subject becomes, in the end, the virtue that makes it stick with you. You may find Colin Beavan unbearably smug, but at the heart of his mission lies an inconvenient truth: Our consumable, disposable, unsustainable culture is destroying the planet, and there’s no way to change that without making sacrifices. To prove that point, Beavan is prepared to endure something worse than composting his own waste: He’s willing to risk looking like an ass on-screen.
Noble as Beavan’s cause may be, it quickly becomes tiresome to watch him agonizing, scene after scene, not about the fate of the planet but about the media image of Colin Beavan. In the film’s opening scene, he’s nervously rehearsing for an appearance on The Colbert Report. We also see him doing Good Morning America and getting profiled, condescendingly, in the New YorkTimes style section. And, of course, he and his wife are constantly shadowed by the makers of this film. As upper-middle-class professionals in the media industry, Colin and Michelle are always keenly aware of their audience: “They’re calling us bourgeois fucks,” she laments, after the Times article provokes a reader backlash. The aging hippie who shares an urban garden plot with Colin summarizes the paradox more kindly: Colin and Michelle’s ownership of a Fifth Avenue co-op and her job at a business magazine are what put them in a position to pursue this privileged lifestyle experiment.
Unlike Morgan Spurlock’s similarly themed Supersize Me, No Impact Man never fully embraces the gimmickiness of its own conceit; neither the filmmakers nor their subjects completely convince us that what the Times called “The Year Without Toilet Paper” was worth it. That ambivalence makes this film less punchy and entertaining than Spurlock’s, but also more complex. If Michelle and Colin are bourgeois fucks, yet we still somehow admire their tenacity, what does that make us?
The movie’s drama is essentially that of a reality show—will the couple survive their self-imposed year of privation?—but the comedy is straight from a sitcom. At first, Michelle gamely agrees to the experiment despite her addiction to iced espressos and designer labels. (In one of the film’s more touching acts of revelation, she permits the filmmakers a close-up of her credit card statement, which includes a $975 charge for Chloé boots.) But as Michelle astutely points out, the name of Colin’s project is “No Impact Man“: “It’s his book, it’s his project, and he’s ‘No Impact Man,’ but our family’s doing this.”
As Colin and Michelle haggle over the quotidian details of their new arrangement—does Michelle really have to exchange her refrigerator for an African-style “pot-in-pot” cooler? And if she does, would Colin reconsider his stance against having a second child?—No Impact Man becomes as much a portrait of a modern marriage as a design for green living. Over the course of a year, the couple’s downsized lifestyle brings them closer together; instead of watching reality TV, they play charades by candlelight, and by the time the electricity comes back on, they do seem genuinely happier together. Theirs might not be a marriage I’d want for myself—Colin can be rigid and humorless, and Michelle isn’t above leveraging her resentment to her own advantage. But it’s hard not to admire their shared commitment to a project that, in some attenuated form, many of us would like to emulate in our own lives. Bring on the cloth diapers and compost boxes, but you’ll have to pry the toilet paper out of my cold, dead hands.