Anyone who’s seen Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland and its 2013 sequel will be well prepared for the first 40 minutes of his new film: the awkwardly titled How To Let Go Of The World And Love All The Things Climate Can’t Change. As is his style, Fox starts small, opening with shots of himself dancing with joy over the news that the gas companies won’t be fracking in his general vicinity any time soon. But the euphoria ends when Fox starts thinking about the tree in his yard that’s dying because of an insect that’s seen its life cycle and eating capacity extended by global warming. And then Hurricane Sandy hits, and as Fox tours the wreckage, he cuts in interviews with climate experts who lay out convincing proof that we’re in for more severe weather, more floods, more famines… and most likely the end of human civilization, within the next couple of decades.
Just when he’s about to send his audience down a black hole of despair, Fox pivots. Rather than the outrage and depressing demonstrations of environmental devastation of the two Gaslands—and of How To Let Go’s first third—the movie takes the audience on a journey around the world, documenting people fighting on the front lines of climate change. Fox talks to citizen-journalists who’ve risked arrest to spread the news about what oil companies want to do along the Amazon. He meets with a Chinese artist who uses his country’s thick pollution as his primary theme. And he joins in with a flotilla of Pacific Islanders and Australian kayakers as they try to stop coal barges from embarking. Most meaningfully, Fox talks to an activist who suggests that when the dust settles from whatever apocalyptic disaster is inevitably arriving, the world may be a better place, with a long-overdue calibration of our value systems.
That may be cold comfort to those who were hoping to keep on eating fast-food burgers, watching preposterously expensive Hollywood blockbusters, and buying cheap clothing at Walmart 20 or 30 years from now. But then, it’s hard to say who Fox’s film is supposed to placate. The first third of How To Let Go is so alarmingly pessimistic that it’s hard to get too inspired by the more optimistic segments that follow, no matter how many times Fox throws big bold words like COURAGE or CREATIVITY onto the screen (which he does with annoying frequency). The numbers are numbing, which Fox himself acknowledges, at one point repeating, “Overwhelmed, overwhelmed,” with each new data point.
So what is How To Let Go? A dire prophecy? A call to arms? A personal travelogue? It appears to be a combination of all three—and frequently a disjointed one. The movie’s style is all over the place. Sometimes Fox waxes poetic over footage that’s been assembled into an impressionistic flurry of images. At other times, the film is sloppier, like a vacation video. Or it’s punctuated with bullet points, like a seminar. Some passages of How To Let Go are informative and affecting. But it also feels like Fox spent a few years shooting material for about a half-dozen documentaries, then haphazardly stitched them all together.
Ultimately, how viewers process this film is bound to be related to how they feel about Fox, who’s either on screen or heard in voice-over for roughly 90 percent of How To Let Go’s two-hour running time. Fox makes himself the star of the show even when he doesn’t have to. He inserts shots of himself playing his banjo in various locations around the world. He conducts one interview in a closed food court, apparently so that he can include footage of a security guard kicking him out. When one of his subjects breaks down in tears, Fox keeps in the moment when he sets down the camera—which he does without pressing the “stop” button, and while keeping the equipment positioned in such a way that it can record him giving the man a hug.
None of these embellishments constitute an egregious documentary sin. They’re in questionable taste, sure, but they do give How To Let Go a personal touch, keeping the film from becoming just another dry issue-doc, filled with stats and talking heads. Nevertheless, all of the stirring anecdotes and chilling data in How To Let Go are undercut a little by the strong, at times off-puttingly self-centered presence of the person behind the camera. Whatever Fox intended with this project, the message he ends up delivering is that if we all leap into the fray and do what we can, then the imminent collapse of society could work out just fine for Josh Fox.