Have you ever cried over a car, one that wasn't even your own? You might, if you see this movie.

Director Chris Paine explores the life and tragic death of GM's EV1, a zero-emission electric vehicle that hit the streets in the late '90s to meet California's tough new emissions standards—only to have nearly every car scooped up by the automaker a few years later as the California standard was rolled back. The sporty, perfectly useful cars were inexplicably corralled and crushed at the junkyard.

Paine—who leased an EV1, until he dropped it off for a minor repair two months before his lease ran out, and the dealer wouldn't give it back—is a passionate advocate of the plug-in, no-exhaust cars. (Alternative fuels, the film argues, don't even come close to replacing the plug-in technology). When he saw that the media wasn't digging into the story of the car's bizarre demise, Paine picked up his camera.

His smart, engaging film is set up like a murder mystery, exploring which evil force—General Motors, oil companies, consumers, the media, politicians, Hummers, etc.—conspired to kill off the electric car, and why. "Reporting it all just deepened the story," Paine told the Mercury before a July 12 benefit screening of the film. "I was amazed at what happened. I was amazed at the oil industry. Could they really be so threatened by such a tiny bug? That's unconscionable."

Though it happened to hit theaters on the heels of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, this film doses out the environmental crisis message with a more human touch: Celebs (including a bearded Mel Gibson) and regular EV1 owners breathe life into the story, gushing about the cool car, and chronicling their work to try and save it (by doing things like throwing a funeral in LA, and keeping vigil at a lot that held a few dozen of the repossessed vehicles).

But ultimately, the film isn't about the EV1—which is, according to Paine, "just a car. But it's a symbol of something," he adds. It's what America could do, he says, to help shape the future.