Colin Beavan's heart is in the right place, but you can see how he'd be a little insufferable. No Impact Man is the documentary account of how he decided that he was going to spend one year making no environmental impact. He did it as an experiment, and also to provide himself with subject matter (Beavan is an author--he kept a blog throughout the project and just published a book about the experience); more importantly, it gave the self-proclaimed "guilty liberal" the chance to put his money where his mouth is.
The rules of the "no impact" year are multitude: no automated transportation (biking only), no non-local food, no material consumption, no new clothes, no trash generation, no packaging. No meat and no television (there's the part where you'd have to count me out). Six months in, no electricity. And (gulp) no toilet paper.
What keeps No Impact Man, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, from descending into the well-intentioned but dull rhythms of most liberal eco-docs is the fact that Colin doesn't take on the experiment alone: he also has a two-year old daughter (she's charming and good on camera, which helps) and a wife, Michelle, who writes for Business Week and loves her retail and Starbuck's coffees. Her presence in the picture is absolutely invaluable; she's funny and interesting, and provides a valuable counterpoint, particularly in the early scenes.
Gabbert and Schein's cameras clearly had full access to the Beavan family throughout the year-long project, observing some difficult conversations between the married couple. If some of it feels somewhat set up, or at least amped up for the camera, it is at least acknowledged; at one point, Colin remarks, "This feels like a reality show, to have this conversation on camera." But the film is unquestionably well-assembled and compelling, particularly in the section dealing with the media scrutiny his experiment generated (some of it critical and mean-spirited).
And not every critical voice is on the page or on the Internet--in one fascinating, uncomfortable scene, Mayer (the organic gardener who Colin is working with) takes him to task for his wife's place of business. He notes that trees are chopped down for the magazine, which "promote(s) the fully fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people" and tells the writer that if "it's your contention that she makes up for it--that it evens out--because she doesn't take the elevator in your Fifth Avenue co-op, I have to say, you are either dishonest or delusional." When those kinds of harsh, but honest and complicated ideas become a part of the conversation, No Impact Man is thoughtful, complex, downright fascinating viewing.
And in many ways, Michelle sort of saves the movie; she begins as the cynical voice of reason and practicality (a naturally sympathetic position, thanks to both her natural wit and the extremity of the project) but, through the duration of the film, slowly comes to embrace and celebrate their new way of life. To some degree, she becomes the audience surrogate, and that's a valuable storytelling tool that is too often missing from documentary films (due to the nature of the beast). The picture doesn't really come to a definite ending--it ends more with a dash than a period--but I prefer that kind of modest, unassuming ending to the moralizing and monologues of something like Super Size Me (which the filmmakers pinpoint as an influence).
No Impact Manis Oscilloscope Laboratories' 15th release (and is numbered accordingly), arriving in a cardboard case that not only uses recycled materials, but includes an Oscilloscope bookmark and postcard "made from leftover paper used in the packaging of this DVD."
No Impact Man was shot on consumer-grade digital video cameras, so there's just no getting around it: the anamorphic 1.78:1 image is pretty weak. There's certainly nothing wrong with the transfer itself--the picture looks about as it did when I saw it in the theater. But it's grainy, noisy and murky overall, with messy black levels and frequently washed-out skin tones, and compression artifacts are frequent and noticeable. The portability of the cameras was certainly a necessity, and the low-fi look of the film certainly falls in line with the subject matter. But it's still a bit of an eyesore.
The 5.1 surround mix, on the other hand, is surprisingly robust. Street sounds in outdoor scenes are well-dispersed throughout the soundstage, while music levels are well-modulated and dialogue, even when captured on the go, is clean and audible in the center channel. It's a very good track, particularly for a low-budget documentary.
A 2.0 stereo track is also available, as is a "clean stereo" track, removing the (admittedly scant) profanities for school showings. English subtitles are also offered.
Oscilloscope Laboratories has decked out the No Impact Man disc with a decent array of bonus features (more than are mentioned on the box, in fact). "Bobby Johnston, Composer" (6:18) is a profile of the film's music writer, seen discussing the film and at work on the score. The excerpts from the "Sundance Q&A" (24:19) are interesting, though the sound quality is pretty sketchy. "Get Involved: No Impact Project" is a quickie summary of the project (via on-screen text).
Several deleted scenes are also mixed in (though, rather irritatingly, not put into their own sub-menu): "A Letter from Betty" (:58), "Beachwalk & Talk" (2:59), "Bike Rant" (:56), "Building Super" (:48), "How to Make a Pot in a Pot" (2:33), "How to Make Vinegar" (1:08), "Pregnancy Reveal Alternate" (1:31), "No Impact Date" (1:11), "Scrabble" (2:51), "The Future of Bees" (1:26), and "Transportation Alternatives" (2:43). Most are so short that they don't make much of an impression, though the "Extended Mayer Rant" (2:42) does expand one of the film's tougher scenes, and Colin's scavenger hunt with the "Freegans" (2:37) is pretty memorable.
The disc also includes trailers for No Impact Man and eleven previous Oscilloscope releases.
The filmmakers' caution throughout No Impact Man is admirable; the content and ideas of the picture could easily veer into the territory of the overbearing, but the naturalistic filmmaking and engaging personalities of the parties involved keep the documentary light and nimble while remaining contemplative and informative. Worth a look, particularly by those who are down with the cause.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.