I'm an environmentally minded individual, but I'm also a consumer. I recycle whenever possible. I turn the lights off when I leave a room. I don't buy bottle water. And I have strong feelings about the pace at which the world - and the United States in particular - is adjusting to environmental realities. But I also like to use my car rather than take the bus, and eat lots of red meat. I also still buy lots of material that will end up in a dump somewhere.
I certainly can't fathom changing my life drastically.
This is why the documentary No Impact Man is so equally thought provoking and abrasive. Directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, the movie focuses on a couple - Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin - who decide to live a year while making no net environmental impact. To summarize, what this means is no coffee, makeup, toilet paper, electricity, processed foods, food from other parts of the country, trash or cars. Could you get rid of your car for a year? Toilet paper?
The idea is stimulating. Beavan's description of how he and Michelle's social life changed following the switch off of electricity is incredibly enticing, especially for someone like me who can't imagine living without the Internet, let alone a computer. Forcing yourself to go to a farmer's markets to buy all your food is alluring, and that coming from someone who loves to go out to eat. Plenty of the other things Beavan does are inspiring.
And at the same time, his actions are startling and uncomfortable. The conditions Americans live in are brought front and center and placed under a scrutinizing lens, all by simply changing them. Kudos to Beavan and Conlin for accomplishing so much without once forcing their views on others or even proselytizing to friends.
The issues raised by No Impact Man are ones that everyone should consider; it's unrealistic to assume that we can all go off the grid - clearly it was a struggle for such a determined person as Beavan - but there are things we can change in our lives that could make a positive impact with only minor alterations in our behavior. Beyond the issues, though, No Impact Man is just a decent documentary.
The first half of No Impact Man is engaging as Beavan and Conlin slowly immerse themselves in their environmentally friendly lifestyle; Conlin, a willing participant but not a passionate one, has multiple shocks as she realizes just what she's gotten into (no makeup/coffee/toilet paper!). She also wants a kid and Beavan doesn't, which adds fuel to the fire. Seeing their relationship hardships adds some intrigue to the documentary.
But once they get used to their lifestyle, it becomes less interesting. The second half of the documentary suffers as a result; I don't even remember what happened. Documentaries should get more powerful as they go along, not less, and No Impact Man definitely loses its luster after a while. It doesn't build to a climax or thesis because it accomplishes what it set out to do 45 minutes earlier.
No Impact Man asks some powerful questions and forces you to think about your own lifestyle, but as a documentary it struggles to entertain while doing so. Still, recommended.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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