Finally an environmental advocacy film for those of us who have the best of intentions but a weakness for Peet's espressos, takeout dinners and an occasional Marc Jacobs sale, to say nothing of a dependence on toilet paper, television, elevators and that SUV in the driveway.
Wading right into the muck of our most basic consumption addictions with an armload of facts and a terrific sense of irony is "No Impact Man," with filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein following activist writer Colin Beavan through a year as he tries to answer the question nagging his guilty liberal soul, "What if I tried not to hurt the environment? Is it possible? Is it comfortable?"
Although the title would suggest this is one man's journey, as Beavan's wife, Business Week journalist Michelle Conlin points out as she ruefully sorts through her designer duds, deciding which she'll bequeath to the local thrift store, it's about the whole family trying zero on for size. For Beavan, it's a sort of grand adventure in 100% organic cotton flannels; for Conlin, zero is often an uncomfortably tight fit.
The structure of the film works like a basic primer as Beavan begins to analyze the family's lifestyle excesses seeking a range of solutions, from complete elimination to alternatives. There is no scientific rigor here; still it's hard not to be caught up in his enthusiasm as he brings home a box of earthworms to start composting in a corner of their ninth-floor New York apartment, an idea their toddler, Isabelle, embraces with shrieks of delight.
Easier still to relate to is Conlin, squeamish at the sight of the countless burrowing glistening red worms as they work their magic, telling Isabelle only somewhat facetiously, "Mom doesn't really like nature."
Indeed, much of what makes the film so accessible is the yin and yang of Beavan and Conlin, with Conlin providing the voice of reluctance as the realities of turning abstract green theory into concrete reality take hold.
Gabbert and Schein create a kind of easy intimacy as we watch the family adopt an increasingly austere lifestyle, no doubt facilitated by Beavan's own professional interests in the project, including his blog and his book on the experience.
We have a very media-savvy couple at the center of the film -- Beavan does the talk show circuit, including such issue-friendly places as public radio and "The Colbert Report." Still, that doesn't dampen the relatability watching the television set go out the door, or the ritualized turning off of the electricity in the warm glow of candlelight and friends, even when the friend segments feel a little stagy.
What is sometimes surprising is how close Beavan and Conlin let us into their struggle with the process. The frigid winter nights with no heat, the morning commute on a motor-less scooter, the toilet paper jokes, the food spoiling in the earthenware cooler that was supposed to replace the fridge are the sorts of things you expect.
But there are other moments that play like scenes from a marriage.
In Conlin's difficult caffeine withdrawal and their should-she-or-shouldn't-she disagreement, you realize it's as much about her frustration with Beavan's rigid adherence to the project guidelines as her espresso addiction. Even more real are their tough conversations about whether or not to have a second child and what it might mean for their careers -- just one of the unexpected ripples that comes when radical change uncovers fissures you didn't realize were there.
In between the visits to organic farms, the disposable diaper debate, the trips to the farmers market and the games of charades that have replaced the TV as entertainment, the film ultimately is more practical than profound, a slightly smartened-up "Dummy's Guide to Green Living," which, as you learn, most of us probably know a good deal less about than we imagine.
It's also a voyeuristic way to try some of the more demanding changes on for size without any of the pain. Beavan and Conlin take care of that for us.
'No Impact Man'
MPAA rating: No rating
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes
Playing: In limited release, at Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles and University Town Center in Irvine