An enviro-doc that doesn’t soft-pedal the fact that the calculated, consciousness-raising media event it chronicles is a conceptual stunt, No Impact Man manages to present its New York do-gooder couple as both likably idealistic and inevitably conflicted. Colin Beavan, an environmental activist and blogger, determined that he and his journalist wife Michelle Conlin would attempt to live (with their toddler daughter) as green a lifestyle as possible in their West Village apartment for the entire year of 2007: consumption of local food only, no TV or use of motorized vehicles (subways and elevators included), no new clothes, no packaged products, no trash. The wild card is admitted retail junkie Michelle’s cold-turkey abandonment of Starbucks and off-the-rack shopping. When Colin eyes their AmEx bill’s charge of $975 for his wife’s purchase of designer boots, his soft chuckle recalls that of a Hollywood warden about to throw a recalcitrant con into solitary. This semi-farcical domestic angle is a sitcom-like hook (no wonder there’s a fiction-feature adaptation in development), but a convincing one; as Colin gently informs his wife that they’ll be going sans toilet paper and electricity to ramp up the zero-impact experiment, she shoots him the same incredulous looks Helen Mirren cast at back-to-nature loon Harrison Ford in The Mosquito Coast.
Without every tiny detail a reality-TV series would’ve exposed—the Beavans’ t.p. substitute is mercifully only described, like little Isabella’s new diapers, as “cloths”—directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein stay as fly-on-the-wall as they can without indulging in creepy voyeurism, partly because Beavan and Conlin, being savvy media professionals, are co-producers of the film. Conlin’s expressions of anguish at Beavan’s hesitation to attempt conceiving a second child as a quid pro quo for the sacrifice of her fridge and credit sprees probably belong in the doc, but its subsequent will-they-or-won’t-they suspense comes off as tacky. The domestic squabbles, and icky shots of Beavan’s worm-filled compost bin, are in gritty contrast to Beavan’s enlistment of the rather haughtily dismissive New York Times, Diane Sawyer, and Stephen Colbert to help promote his crusade. But if you concoct a pre-fab sermon, how can you do without a high-volume electronic pulpit? Some of Michelle’s Business Week colleagues consider the couple to be “bourgeois fucks” and Colin’s vegetable-gardening mentor argues that the primary responsibility for piggish overconsumption belongs to American mega-capitalists, but No Impact Man makes a morally persuasive plea for John and Jane Green to do something, anything to keep their ecological footprint smaller than a clown’s shoe.