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Screen Scene: “No Impact Man”


Like many documentaries about the environment, Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein’s “No Impact Man” explores the relationship between man and his environment in a way that involves more showing than telling.

Rather than preaching about the dangers of living unsustainably, the Beavan family ““ headed by environmental activist Colin Beavan along with his wife Michelle Conlin and their 2-year-old daughter Isabella ““ follows its own advice by adhering to an impact-free lifestyle, which involves giving up amenities of modern life such as toilet paper, take-out and electricity.

In New York, a city famous for celebrating consumerist culture, Beavan and his family undergo a startling experiment by attempting to show that even they, as an ordinary urban family accustomed to the comforts of modern society, can live one year without having a negative impact on the environment. Despite the nontraditional setting (or perhaps because of it), “No Impact Man” is a refreshing take on environmentalism in the 21st century, capturing the trials and triumphs of one family’s extreme attempt to go green. Beavan’s philosophy for the project is not new: First change yourself, and then you can change the world.

But having no impact, as straightforward as it may seem, is not without its detours. Ironically, the biggest threat that the family faces is the reluctance of one of its participants. Conlin, a writer for BusinessWeek and a self-proclaimed lover of take-out, Starbucks and designer clothing, finds it increasingly hard to go along with her husband’s grand plan to do away with all things consumer-related for a year, starting first and foremost with the embargo on caffeine.

Along with some humorous shots of Conlin’s initial struggles with temptation, the documentary veers dangerously close to reality-TV territory when the couple starts having major disagreements on important life choices, although Gabbert and Schein are wise enough to keep the drama-loaded moments to a minimum.

Mainly, the film focuses on the little things that the family does in order to promote sustainability: taking bikes and scooters to work instead of cars, growing their own vegetables in the middle of the city and creating their own trash compost in their apartment, complete with worms and the smell of fresh earth ““ all while keeping the bigger picture in mind.

As the No Impact Project gains fame in New York and around the world, what starts out as one individual’s vision begins to branch out into the larger community, garnering the curiosity of the public, if not the approval.

Even Conlin, whose initial skepticism regarding the project is voiced loud and clear, gradually becomes an unlikely advocate for the cause. The filmmakers themselves support the no-impact agenda by filming the entire movie without any cars, lights or new equipment.

While “No Impact Man” effectively showcases the environmental and personal benefits of living an eco-friendly life, as well as visibly outlines the reasons for doing so, its primary strength lies in the sense of familiarity and relatability that its subjects bring to the screen.

The Beavan family, though undergoing a fairly radical experience, resembles any other family in most regards. They soon discover that one of the unexpected rewards of the project is that the lack of television and other consumerist distractions leads to their spending more time together as a family. As their material possessions disappear and their habits begin to change, they grow closer as a result, making for smile-inducing moments that alone make the film worth watching.

As such, even non-environmentalists who watch “No Impact Man” will no doubt be entertained by the family dynamics present in the film, such as when Conlin cooks a meal for the first time or when the couple discusses the possibility of having a second child.

“No Impact Man” is as much a family portrait as it is an educational documentary about living sustainably. As the audience is clued in on the nuts and bolts of the Beavans’ lives, which is gradually stripped of all forms of consumption, the protagonists don’t feel like remote activists preaching sustainability on a pedestal, but rather resemble the people we know and recognize from our own lives, by providing quiet inspiration through their actions rather than words.

Whatever the genre, the film certainly has an impact.

- Shirley Mak

E-mail Mak at

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