Editors' pick

No Impact Man

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Editorial Review

It's Not Easy Being (Truly) Green

By John Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, Sept. 25, 2009

Saving the planet will be hell on Earth, we learn from "No Impact Man," a rather whimsical documentary that follows writer Colin Beavan through his year of "no" -- no TV, no carbon emissions, no elevators, no disposable diapers for his daughter, no refrigeration, no air-conditioning, no caffeine. But you know what they say: Behind every successful, self-flagellating environmental activist is a woman. And that's what saves both Beavan and the movie.

An admitted "high-fructose-corn-syrup-addicted, screen-addicted, meat-eating girl," Michelle Conlin is more or less dragged into her husband's project, not exactly kicking and screaming but nostalgic for her bygone days of Starbucks and shopping. "I have a really intense relationship with retail," she says. But according to the rules Beavan sets out for himself, Conlin and daughter Isabella (he's writing a book), all shopping and nonessentials are banished from their life. The "no" list includes meat, fish, out-of-season foods, even toilet paper. People stop shaking Conlin's hand at work.

"It's not fun," she says, seriously understating the case.

While Beavan isn't exactly the villain of the piece, he's the less sympathetic of the two, largely because his wife is us. She can't argue against the righteous morality of the project, and she's glad her husband has something he's excited about doing. But she's also missing her iced espressos, cabs and reality television. When the family's big-screen TV leaves the house, it does so with all the solemnity of grandma going to the hospice.

Conlin also doesn't like the improvised Nigerian water cooler in her kitchen or the composting earthworms in the living room of her lower Fifth Avenue co-op. (That directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein never fill us in on the Beavan/Conlin net worth is something of a gap, since sacrifice seems easier when you can return to bounty.) And though there's a book in the works, she has her doubts about the eco-efficacy of one family killing itself while the skyline of Manhattan consumes, per night, what seems to be a century's worth of kilowatt hours.

"No Impact Man" is actually more a portrait of a marriage than propaganda for enviro-spartanism. And despite a few holes in its plotline, it is a funny, shiny, entertaining movie. The music by Bobby Johnston feels just right and the shooting by co-director Schein is often just lovely, making its share of mute editorial comments -- a beautiful shot of the electricity-sucking skyline just after a satisfied Beavan and Conlin restore power to their apartment, for example, ratchets matters down to reality.

The "No Impact Man" book that eventually came out of all this is subtitled "The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process." It's safe to say the viewer gets to make some discoveries, too.

No Impact Man (90 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated and contains nothing objectionable.