Off the Map is a movie for sensitive adults or attuned junior-high girls, since they’re probably the only ones who can accept the unhurried pace with which this lyrical coming-of-age story unfolds. Even in the relative coolness of the thick-walled adobe house where much of the story takes place, summer in the high desert near Taos, N.M., is stupefyingly hot. Everything — the rabbits, the coyotes, the tarantulas and especially the humans — moves in a heat-respectful reverie.
It’s 1974. “It was the summer my father was depressed,” remembers grown-up Bo Groden (Amy Brenneman, TV’s Judging Amy) — a terrible time when his debilitating illness became the focus of her family’s life.
Young Bo (newcomer Valentina de Angelis) lives with her mother, Arlene (Joan Allen, The Contender), and father, Charley (Sam Elliot, The Contender), on an isolated, well-nurtured spread in the Taos mountains. They’re completely off the grid, or “off the map” — no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no phone. They raise all their own food or hunt for it. They barter for everything else or find it on their frequent forays to the local dump, where there are always treasures-in-waiting that can be restored. Bo is home-schooled, with substantial lessons in literature and artful living. The Grodens’ only income is Charley’s Korean War veteran’s pension, but the adults don’t consider themselves poor. Their beautiful home is paid for, they have a full pantry and three years’ of firewood, and they live in harmony with themselves and Mother Nature.
Arlene is a sensual earth-mother who treads the planet gently in the spirit of oneness learned from her Hopi grandmother. Charley is a resourceful genius who can fix anything and play any musical instrument. Their self-sufficient lifestyle was satisfying until, for no reason he can identify, Charley became depressed. He can do nothing except cry, and his continual gloom is threatening to destroy him as well as those who love him.
Meanwhile, Bo fantasizes about escaping into the world of other children — going to public school, buying clothes that didn’t belong to someone else first, and getting a MasterCard. In desperation, Arlene enlists the family’s devoted friend George (J.K. Simmons, The Ladykillers) in a misguided scheme to get antidepressant drugs for her husband.
One day, salvation enters the picture — or so Bo thinks — in the person of a lonely IRS agent, William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost, TV’s The Wire). After walking for hours in a daze, Gibbs arrives at the Groden place to find Arlene happily weeding her garden in the nude. This Eden-like sight so strikes Gibbs that he immediately falls in love with her, then gets stung by a bee and collapses into a delirium for three days. When he awakes, he decides he can’t bear to leave the family or the enchanting New Mexico landscape, and the Grodens allow him to move into an abandoned bus on their property.
In the glow of the Grodens’ unelectrified lifestyle, Gibbs unburdens himself of guilt and discovers a latent artistic talent that will someday become legendary. Meanwhile, as Charley sees someone who is perhaps worse off than he is, his black cloud begins to lift. As the adults around Bo move with fitful stops and starts, she observes firsthand the pain that life can dish out and learns, profoundly, how to cause it herself. She also learns that real love is more real than fantasies of the “real” world, that friends can make you more than what you ever thought you could be, that you can always find another telescope, and that sailing ships don’t need the sea in order to float on the horizon.
While never leaving her original stage play too far behind, writer Joan Ackerman has expanded the theatrical version of her memory story onto a cinematic canvas of incredible lyricism. Director Campbell Scott draws extraordinary performances out of all the actors, allowing them time to reveal their characters gradually, scene by scene, in the same way days and nights make a summer.
Off the Map was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival two years ago, but because this small film has no car chases, special effects, murders or adultery (heck, the people in the story actually like each another), it took this long for it to be shown in theaters. For the same reasons the movie is wonderful, it won’t be around for very long, so this is one gem you should indeed hurry to see as soon as possible. Rated PG-13 for nudity and thematic elements.
– reviewed by Marci Miller