Intriguingly high concept yet visually and structurally artless in the way of so many modern documentaries, Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s “No Impact Man” chronicles Colin Beavan’s yearlong experiment to reduce his carbon footprint as much as possible while living in New York City. Necessarily participating in the project are Colin’s wife, Michelle Conlin, and toddler daughter, Isabella. Giving up trash-producing luxuries such as takeout meals, as well as non-locally sourced food products, any form of carbon-producing transportation, and, eventually, electricity, the family comes off as admirable on the one hand — such extreme efforts on behalf of the environment can’t help but hold some allure for the eternally guilty liberal — and crassly commercial on the other since it’s difficult at times not to view the documentary as one long trailer shilling for the concurrent release of Colin’s book of the same name. This ambivalence animates the movie as you constantly weigh the sincerity of the enterprise, the ostensible premise of which is to inspire individuals to take the reduce/reuse/recycle ethos just a little further in their lives, against the protagonist’s self-promotional ambitions.
Not a particularly charismatic subject, Colin mostly remains a tabula rasa throughout the film, rarely deviating from a seemingly set script, spouting platitudes on the aims of the experiment and not much else. A more layered undertaking would’ve explored his personal history further in the context of this urban Walden project. Although Michelle alludes in passing to her husband’s love of camping and nature, viewers learn little else about his formative past. Such details might serve to provide a rounder picture and mitigate doubts about the self-dubbed No Impact Man’s motives, not always captured in the best light: Sitting in the candlelit dark one night, Colin confesses to Michelle his fear that his moment (which includes being interviewed on “The Colbert Report” and NPR) will have passed by the time his book comes out.
Michelle ultimately emerges as the story’s true center. Upon the project’s commencement, she embodies a particular archetype: A self-professed shopping and reality television junkie, she lives for designer clothes, caffeine, and Sunday brunches at Pastis. But she gamely gives up restaurants, newspapers, meat, and shopping in the name of the project, things most privileged New Yorkers would be loathe to do without. Her transformation from ideal American consumer to more conscious citizen is fitful — she and Colin fight over her desire to break the no-coffee rule when she’s working on a cover story for her job at Business Week, and at one point she gazes covetously at a Marc Jacobs handbag displayed in a store window to Colin’s contemptuous sneer — but she slowly begins to take pleasure in bicycling around the city, Isabella in tow, and picking out the family’s produce at the Union Square farmer’s market.
Not uninterestingly, “No Impact Man” starts to investigate the nature of compromise in relationships — if Michelle is willing to sacrifice certain things to aid Colin in achieving his dreams, will he support her in desires he might not share? — but the filmmakers can’t quite mold the material into complex coherence, so the narrative attention to the issue of Michelle’s yearning for another baby seems belabored (Colin isn’t interested; maybe because having fewer children is one of the single most significant ways to reduce one’s carbon footprint? Who knows? We’re never let into the details).
In addition to these more lofty objectives, the movie serves as something of a preliminary primer for those seeking to undertake urban environmentalism. From worm-bin composting and community gardening to creating homemade cleaning agents and shopping from bulk bins, Colin introduces various tactics to the budding environmentalist. And “No Impact Man” also makes room for his numerous critics: Colin reads aloud on camera some of the less supportive comments a New York Times profile on the family inspires, and Michelle brings up a friend’s summary report of others’ assessment of the family as “bourgeois fucks.” Incorporating the naysayers’ arguments elevates the film from simple representation of the subject to mild interrogation, but also at times comes off as a preemptive ploy meant to ward off any possible criticism of the endeavor — including its inherent classist assumptions (most of us can’t afford to eat organic only) and gimmicky grandiosity — by beating you to the punch.
Despite attempts to delve deeper into the experiment’s implications, the film finally doesn’t amount to much more than a retracing of steps. Gabbert and Schein’s documentary stylings tend toward frequent cutting rather than fly-on-the-wall unfolding, and the pair prioritizes chatter over stillness, missing opportunities to more profoundly convey the changed rhythms in the day-to-day routines of the family. Never quite able to temper its slightly slimy promo sheen, “No Impact Man” fails to inspire despite truly laudable goals because Colin’s efforts don’t seem to arise organically from real passion and commitment to a cause. Then again, others have done far less and far worse in order to drum up publicity for themselves and, if the No Impact Man project has a lasting (yeah, I’m going there) impact on other audience members, more power to him.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shotstaff writer.]