Monday, January 25, 2010

Jay's Review: No Impact Man

A documentary you may find inspiring even if you find the man it's about insufferable. My latest review for



"Like Gilligan's Island, only completely implausible." That's how comedian Stephen Colbert summed up the family saga of Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man. Beavan, a New York City writer and self-proclaimed liberal, has big plans for his new book. He decides on a grand experiment to live one year with as little impact on the environment as possible. The problem is, the project requires his wife Michelle - an espresso guzzling, Prada-worshipping business writer- and their young daughter to be fully on board.

As the family embarks on a year of no electricity, television, cars, toilet paper, elevators, or newspapers, Michelle must contend with caffeine withdrawl, compost worms, no retail, and defending her own dreams, all in the name of supporting her husband's book project.

What ensues is not only an entertaining and funny look at well-intentioned environmentalism, but a touching, poignant take on the nature of contemporary marriage and what it means to pursue your dreams, even if it means driving those around you a little insane.

What do you say about a "noble experiment?" The "no impact" project may perhaps be more noble if it wasn't essentially a job, there to give purpose to a book and documentary. Still, the idea of giving up all your modern conveniences and reducing consumption is attractive; something it'd probably behoove most of us to try. In this doc about a married couple (Colin Beavan and Michele Conlin) who decide they want to bring their environmental impact down to nil, they show us it's even less easy than you may first think.

Starting out with a commitment to purchasing only local, organic foods (including a side trip to a dairy) and cutting out packaging, they aren't afraid to show the stresses such deprivations can cause on the marriage. Giving up TV is easy, TP not so much. (Conlin even asks "Do we really wanna be this graphic," cognizant of the fact that they're now "The Family I Won't Shake Hands With."). Beavan, and Conlin by default, lives eco-consciousness to the point where you have two opinions. One is "I see your point," the other,"You're really an obnoxious git, you know that?"
Thankfully that gets acknowledged in the first third of the film. Owning it adds a dimension of awareness that this is an experiment, is a loaded situation, and the documentary is better for it. (Even when Beavan starts to sound like he's pontificating, Conlin is around the corner to ground us back to matter-of-fact reality.) Concerns, compromises, and slip-ups are aired for the cameras as no one's perfect. It's the fact that they keep trying that makes all the difference.

They continue to commit to the experiment, gaining publicity while escalating deprivation. "Downcycling" is one thing, ticking the clock down to turning off the electricity is another. I honestly wonder if they would have gone through with it without the culpability of a blog, a book deal and camera crews from Good Morning America. They at least inspire me to try something new.

The first thing to note is the packaging if your'e going to buy No Impact Man. It's a cardboard folder in a cardboard sleeve, all made from mixed sources. If anything it's a little bit too much cardboard, but a nice touch. The DVD offers audio in stereo, Dolby 5.1, and (another nice feature) a "clean stereo" track "for school & educational use." There are English subtitles.

15 extra featurettes make this a pretty packed DVD. They include:
-No Impact dating: Colin and Michelle on No Impact nights on the town
-Urban Cycling: Bike activism in NYC
-Freeganism: The virtues of gleaning food from the trash
-Audience Q&A: Colin, Michelle and the filmmakers discuss the film at the Sundance Film Festival
-Fruit Vinegar: Colin's easy to follow recipe
-and a variety of extra/extended scenes

The trailer for this film and 11 other releases from Oscilloscope are also included.

This may be as much a documentary about committing to an ecologically responsible lifestyle as it is a testament to marrying someone easy-going. There's no sustainability to an experiment in sustainability unless they're willing to commit to it too. Their project may inspire or annoy, but No Impact Man introduces us to a couple who're genuinely likable (well, like most couples, one is likable enough to make up for the two of them) and are trying something "outside the box." They're pleasurable company for their journey and should be commended for it.


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