*Off the Map (PG -13)
Hole Digger Studios
Director Campbell Scott continues to deliver what Hollywood least wants and expects: quiet, thoughtful films that are actor and character driven, in which nothing much happens. That he's able to pull it off is a miracle of determination and a gift to moviegoers.
Scott's latest effort, Off the Map, debuted to critical acclaim at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, but it wasn't distributed until March 2005 and has recently found its way to Colorado Springs for a short stay at the Chapel Hills Mall theater this month.
Given that Off the Map features the glorious scenery of our neighbor to the south -- the Taos mesa, Rio Grande river gorge and Sangre de Cristo mountain range of northern New Mexico -- it should have drawn many more viewers than the three I shared the theater with when I attended last weekend. (Don't miss it in video or DVD.)
Off the Map is the portrait of a family off the grid, living in the rabbitbrush-infested desert outside Taos in 1974. Joan Allen plays Arlene, the earthy and unsentimental matriarch of the Groden family, including her precocious 11-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis) and husband Charley (Sam Elliott), who is so clinically depressed he does little besides sit stoically with tears rolling down his weathered cheeks. The story is told in retrospect by a grown-up Bo (Amy Brenneman) looking back on the year of her father's depression, when everything changed following the surprise appearance of IRS agent William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) at the Groden home.
Gibbs is a melancholy young man, relocated from New England to Albuquerque, who stumbles onto a job with the IRS and spends four days in his car searching for the tax-delinquent Groden family. Upon his arrival to their adobe and timber compound, he stumbles upon Arlene, gardening in the nude, and is simultaneously struck by her beauty and swarmed by bees from her hive. He spends three days in a bee-sting-induced delirium and awakens to an ecstatic new reality, inspired by the beauty of the landscape and his love for Arlene.
In a lesser film, Arlene might have been lonely enough to succumb to the advances of young Gibbs, but as played by Allen and written by playwright/screenwriter Joan Ackermann, Arlene is a woman who knows herself above all else and wisely dismisses his infatuation. Still, Biggs stays for eight years, becomes a painter and bestows upon Bo his masterwork, an 18-by-41 inch watercolor of the horizon, painted on the back of a discarded wallpaper roll. He also becomes the catalyst for the end of Charley's bout with depression.
Young de Angelis' Bo is uncannily smart in the ways of the world, cooking up schemes to receive free merchandise and applying for a Master Charge card while spending her days bow-and-arrow hunting in the forest and shooting a rifle. Allen's Arlene is a vision of wisdom and dignity, unruffled and utterly in charge, whether feeding and caring for her family, driving a clunker of a pickup or skinning a bear. Elliott's understated performance is heartbreaking, his deep bass voice accentuating the strength that belies his fragile mental state. And True-Frost brings heartfelt sweetness and sadness to the character of Gibbs.
Topping off the cast is character actor J.K. Simmons as George, a family friend who at first seems comically obtuse but whose devotion to the family is revealed in carefully arranged scenes. Indeed, most of Off the Map surprises and enchants with its simplicity, artfulness and beauty.
-- Kathryn Eastburn