No Impact Man -- Film Review

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The planet's environmental problems can sometimes seem overwhelming, particularly as recent issue-oriented documentaries highlight the growing list of crises we face, from climate change to declining fish stocks, crude oil pollution and pesticide contamination.

So who you gonna call? Perhaps "No Impact Man," the alternate identity adopted by writer Colin Beavan in this revealing and empathetic doc about how a commitment to conservation can have unexpectedly beneficial effects on personal relationships, as well as the environment. Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein's lively film will delight niche audiences and with the right cultivation could flourish with viewers eager to make a difference when it opens September 4.

In late 2006, New York nonfiction author Beavan convinced his skeptical and reluctant journalist wife Michelle Conlin, an avowed designer-fashion and coffee fanatic, to sign onto his one-year No Impact Man project, along with their 2-year-old daughter Isabella.

Attempting to minimize their unsustainable consumer lifestyle and create zero net impact on the environment, Beavan resolves that the family should only eat food locally produced within 250 miles of New York City, give up all forms of powered transportation (adopting bikes or kick scooters instead), reduce and then eliminate garbage output with composting, and eventually go off the grid, shutting down the electricity in their apartment.

Not only a personal challenge, "the project" also serves as a case study for Beavan's upcoming "No Impact Man" book and sets the stage for a planned 2012 feature film.

Hardly a trained environmentalist, Beavan struggles with unfamiliar concepts and technology, including composting "worm boxes" and passive-cooling refrigeration techniques, blogging about his efforts from home, where he looks after Isabella and does the household shopping at the neighborhood farmers' market.

Strains in their marriage begin to develop as Conlin and Beavan downshift to a lower-impact way of life. Conlin is particularly stressed by the project's seasonal dietary requirements and the difficulty of readjusting the family's consumer habits as she also tries to cope at work. Beavan's No Impact Man blog and extensive media attention add another layer of expectation and anxiety.

While it might be easy to quibble that the project should be titled "Low Impact Man," as a variety of inconsistencies develop with Beavan's strategy, the point really is that one family actually can lighten their load on the planet. In the process, Beavan discovers that shifting away from all-out consumerism brings the family closer together and engages him with an entirely new and varied community of like-minded environmentalists.

Gabbert and Schein keep the focus on their subjects, interpreting their struggles through the ups and downs in the couple's relationship as they grapple with increasingly difficult issues. This character-driven approach draws viewers into the couple's struggle and prompts consideration of similar lifestyle changes.

Hundreds of hours of footage shot with Beavan and Conlin (one of Gabbert's best friends) create an essential sense of intimacy, while production values are suitably low-key and effective.

Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Production: An Impact Partners Presentation of an Eden Wurmfeld Films/Shadowbox Films/Laura Gabbert Films Production
Directors: Laura Gabbert, Justin Schein
Producers: Laura Gabbert, Eden Wurmfeld
Director of photography: Justin Schein
Music: Bobby Johnston
Editors: William Haugse, Matthew Martin
No rating, 90 minutes
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