M.V. Film Society screens “No Impact Man”


Plenty of us would like to reduce our carbon footprint as close to zero as possible. So in celebration of Earth Day, on Saturday, April 24, at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will screen “No Impact Man,” a documentary that lets us watch what happens when a family actually goes to the max for the environment.

I first saw “No Impact Man” with a documentary-making friend who didn’t think much of author Colin Beavan’s on-camera attempts to purify his family’s environmental impact and prevailed on me to leave in the middle of the film. When I saw it all the way through, however, I found myself thoroughly enjoying the dilemmas of this middle-class urban family trying to banish consumerism from their lives, and I applauded their efforts when I wasn’t laughing at them.

Filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein capture the year that Mr. Beavan, his wife, Michelle Conlin, and their two-year-old daughter, Isabelle, spent without electricity, garbage, take-out food, or gasoline-powered transportation in an entertaining mix that is both light and serious.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott called the film “an elaborate stunt,” but it’s an entertaining and insightful one.

It’s true that Mr. Beavan’s goal of gathering material for his “No Impact Man” blog and book was a bit self-serving, and he did game the celebrity circuit. But it’s hard to fault his underlying commitment to the value of individual action and its potential for collective action. If nothing else, “No Impact Man” aptly illustrates how much of a throwaway culture we’ve become.

What makes the film work as documentary is the way directors Gabbert and Schein have highlighted the “his/hers” perspectives on the project. With a Ph.D. in electronic engineering, Mr. Beavan has a background in working as a public relations consultant for humanitarian organizations, while his wife is a caffeine- and TV-addicted BusinessWeek journalist who loves to shop.

Ms. Conlin is the one who points out that by rights her husband’s book should be called “No Impact Family.” Her wry, sometimes dyspeptic, sense of humor leavens the serious side of the sacrifices in lifestyle that the family makes.

They decide to become “locavores” — eating only food that has been produced within 250 miles of their home. They also eliminate meat and fish to lessen their environmental impact, buy bulk food without packaging whenever possible, and shop at the local farmer’s market.

Eating cabbage and root vegetables all winter long proves the hardest for Ms. Conlin, who complains, “I can’t eat anything that tastes good.” Caffeine withdrawal almost does in her commitment.

Early on, the TV set goes out the door, as do magazines, newspapers, junk mail, and plastic razors. The couple eschews anything new. Instead their policy is to borrow, rent, or buy used. No more disposable diapers, or even –– horror of horrors –– toilet paper.

Beavan and Conlin celebrate turning off the electricity with candles and a party. They acquire worms for composting and a pot/sand contraption to keep milk cool.

The sweet-and-sour dynamics of their efforts turns particularly serious when Ms. Conlin lobbies for a second child. It takes a reluctant Mr. Beavan awhile to appreciate that if his wife is willing to make sacrifices for him, maybe he needs to think about doing the same.

One family’s year without electricity, cabs, and restaurants may not change the world. But when it becomes a book, a blog, and a movie, it might just encourage others to adopt some of the same practices for the sake of our overworked planet. See what you think.

“No Impact Man,” 7:30 pm, Saturday, April 24, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 for members. mvfilmsociety.com; 774-392-2972.