Colin Beavan and his two-year-old daughter Isabella are in the bathroom cleaning out mommy’s cosmetics when they decide to wash their laundry by stomping their feet on a tub full of clothes and all-natural Borax detergent. It’s one of the many inconvenient and impractical things Beavan and his family do in the new documentary No Impact Man. Beavan explains that he normally thinks in terms of “collective action” because “as a liberal” he’s weak on “individual action.” The film chronicles his attempt to “develop and live a no impact lifestyle” for one year in the middle of New York City.
The Beavans give up toilet paper, any products with packaging, cars and public transit, elevators, plastic bags, and shopping for anything new. In addition, they won’t use washing machines, disposable diapers, or food grown outside a 250-mile radius of NYC. It’s an ambitious plan and the Beavans engage it in more dramatic phases over time. At the six-month mark, Beavan turns off the electricity in his apartment, relying instead on the small amount of juice produced by a solar panel on his roof (which allows him to blog and video chat). The film follows the family as they take a variety of steps to move in the direction of minimizing their impact on the environment. Colin’s wife, Michelle, is a shopping and reality TV addict and a self-described “high fructose corn syrup-addicted, screen-addicted, meat-eating girl” who writes for Business Week. She’s not eager to start what she describes as “his project” and Beavan describes as “our project.”
Directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, No Impact Man is a well-made film with good pacing, photography, and sound design. While the film accomplishes the broad goal of making the audience think twice about daily consumption habits, it falls short in at least one important way. The film starts with Beavan asking, “At the end, we will come out of it and see what were we willing to give up. What was too hard? What wasn’t too hard?” Unfortunately, Beavan doesn’t adequately address the questions he set out to answer. Nor does he acknowledge the many benefits of living in a capitalist, consumer-driven economy.
One expects to find a movie full of challenging moments and reflection about all the conveniences we take for granted in our modern world. But instead, the filmmakers focus on how people perceive the project and whether or not the Beavans should have a second child. The challenges they face, though, are minor and inconsequential: They have a fly infestation in their compost bin, Beavan has some internal questions when he first turns off the electricity, and Michelle decides that it’s simply too hard to use a planter pot as a refrigerator. But for the most part, the difficulties created by their lifestyle changes are romanticized away.
For instance, when Beavan first puts an organic wool diaper on his daughter Isabella instead of the disposable variety, the atmosphere is cute, with soft, soothing music throughout. His daughter laughs and smiles and says, “It’s too fun.” Beavan replies, “It’s too fun.” A “fun” sacrifice that’s introduced but never revisited? How much less convenient was it to use a disposable diaper? How much extra time did it take? How difficult are the cloth diapers to clean, especially without a washing machine? Similarly, the practical difficulties of replacing toilet paper with cloth material goes unmentioned. The audience needn’t see details, but at least report back.
Or consider the bathtub scene where Beavan and his daugther are washing laundry with their feet for the first time. They’re having a ball and entice Michelle, the skeptical mom, to join in the fun. With sentimental piano chords in the background, Beavan pulls his wife close and, while laughing, kisses her gently. It’s a great moment, as the reluctant wife is charmed by her goofball husband into enjoying this inconvenient activity. Ah, life is simple doing laundry with your feet in the bathtub. Again, hardly a representative sample. How many loads of laundry did they do with their feet that year?
Nobody wants to watch people changing diapers, walking to farmer’s markets, and sitting around in the dark. Gabbert and Schein know how to take a seemingly inconsequential moment and make it special. Yet it’s a puzzling choice for a movie that wants us to see what it would be like to go without. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to show the 37th time the Beavans changed their daughter’s cloth diaper instead of the first.
During the closing credits we do hear from Michelle about what she wants back, what she can do without, but we never hear from Colin. Is that simply because his list would undermine the point of the movie? Toward the end he asks whether there is hope for changing our cities into “nice places” (as if New York’s swelling population isn’t an indicator that more people want to live there). He addresses critics while pedaling through New York on his bike saying that these days, “There’s such a lack of idealism, but I think realism got us where we are.” It’s unintentional, but this is Beavan’s best insight. Realism, in the form of buying and selling stuff that’s relatively cheap and easy, has gotten us where we are. People like Beavan can afford to live in New York City, start a blog, write a book, and make a film about their experience. That’s a practical reality this idealistic film chooses to ignore. As a result, No Impact Man misses the chance to make an indelible impression.
Dan Hayes is a producer at Reason.tv. This column first appeared at Reason.com.