An environmental documentary that consists of roughly one-third doom-and-gloom to two-thirds wide-eyed optimism.
Josh Fox’s “GasLand” (2010) was a startling act of DIY filmmaking: Faced with the prospect of leasing his Pennsylvania property for natural-gas exploration, the helmer-star set out to explore the environmental consequences of hydrofracking and uncovered alarming results. That personal quest — which netted Fox a special jury prize at Sundance that year and, later, an Oscar nomination — seems to have bloomed into a larger activist mission for the director, a trajectory that led to diminishing returns in “GasLand Part II” (2013) and now the uneven “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change,” an environmental documentary that consists of roughly one-third doom-and-gloom to two-thirds wide-eyed optimism, and that is more potent in individual scenes than it is as a sprawling whole. While Fox’s peppy muckraking lacks the name recognition that brought “An Inconvenient Truth” theatrical success, the movie stands to reach a sizable audience when HBO airs it in June.
“How to Change” opens with Fox dancing to the Beatles to celebrate a victory over the gas industry in the Delaware River Basin. But his joy soon turns to frustration when he discovers that a tree he nurtured in boyhood is being ravaged by parasitic insects, a result, he explains, of changes to the climate. He visits Hurricane Sandy-devastated parts of New York, including a home immersed in sewage and sand, and a boardwalk that, he says in voiceover, had turned “into a cubist abstraction of what a boardwalk should be.” If these scenes don’t register with the impact of the flammable tap water in “GasLand,” the interviews with community activists call to mind “Roger & Me”-era Michael Moore — the work a filmmaker devoted to exploring hot-button issues with a folksy, personal touch. More than Moore, Fox is attuned to some of the complexities of the issues he raises.
Fox visits with environmentalists like Bill McKibben, who proposes naming hurricanes after after oil and gas companies instead of women, and Michael E. Mann, who suggests that temperatures are already on an irreversible course to rise to catastrophic levels. With one statistic after another, the movie paints a picture of the inevitable flooding of coastal cities and an ensuing struggle for homes and food. “I don’t know about you,” Fox says at one point, “but I’m about ready to watch a few cat videos right now.”
After admitting, about 40 minutes in, that he is resigned to pure hopelessness, Fox suddenly shifts tactics, seeking out ground-level activists around the world who have come up with local solutions to climate problems. “I needed to find the people who’d found this place, this place of despair, and gotten back up,” he narrates. How these solutions might be implemented, and on what scale, are questions the movie, despite a rambling two-hour-plus running time, never quite addresses.
Fox visits an oil spill in the Amazonian rain forest and sends up a drone camera to illustrate deforestation. He finds impoverished communities in Ecuador and Zambia that make use of solar power. He joins Pacific Islanders in a canoe-flotilla protest against a coal tanker, leading to a confrontation with authorities that nearly results in the waterlogging of Fox’s camera. The most compelling of these globe-trotting episodes, or at least the one that comes closest to the citizen-activist flavor of “GasLand,” is the visit Fox pays to China, where he explores the health effects of chronic smog. (He calls Beijing a city of 20 million where no one opens a window.) Flagged as a journalist, he is also trailed by authorities, and — to avoid the confiscation of his footage — hides digital cards in his banjo.
Conceptually scattered, the movie seems to settle more for a change of attitude than for practical recommendations. After spending its first third suggesting that it’s almost impossible to get environmental incentives to align with political and economic ones, the movie takes heart in communities that have found small-scale solutions — as if those would prevent the immersion of New York and San Francisco that Fox has worked so hard to foreshadow.
The varied lensing — which ranges from professional camera work to mosaic’d camera-phone shooting — adds to Fox’s sense of rough-and-ready determination.