Off the Map
2003, PG-13, 111 min. Directed by Campbell Scott. Starring Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, Valentina de Angelis, J.K. Simmons, Jim True-Frost, Amy Brenneman.
REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., April 1, 2005
Off the map is right. After kicking around the festival circuit for two years – including a turn at the Austin Film Festival in 2003 – this intriguing ensemble dramedy finally gets a limited release. It’s not perfect and strives too hard to be quirky (consider a minor subplot in which the face of Jesus appears on a tortilla at a roadside diner), but Off the Map is the rare film all its own: wheezing downbeat accordion score, precocious child actress (de Angelis, in her film debut), nude desert gardening, and a wry, left-field sense of humor that punctuates its tale of an off-the-grid family coping with depression and a tax audit. Elliott is pitch-perfect as the dysthymic patriarch, who’s been staring into space and breaking into tears all during a 1970s summer outside of Taos, New Mexico. His daughter Bo and resourceful wife, Arlene (Allen), can’t shake him out of it. But the whole family achieves a sort of equilibrium when a citified tax collector (True-Frost) arrives at their homestead – and stays. The setup for the film is stagy (scribe Joan Ackermann adapts her play to screen), and the script relies too heavily on expository voiceover (by Brenneman, as the adult Bo), but man, what acting. Allen, too often typecast as a priss due to her patrician features and mien of steel-magnolia feminine restraint, has a ball as the unflappable Arlene, a part-Hopi earth mother who casually shoots bears by the outhouse but reaches the end of her tether at last when her husband becomes mentally ill. She’s the linchpin of the movie, keeping it together despite the contrivances of the plot. There’s a fantastic scene – funny, real, yet farcical – in which the tax man reveals an important secret to her, and she’s got to interrupt him long enough to put down the scavenged auto battery she’s holding in her arms. Too bad Scott (directing his third feature) cuts between angles instead of holding on the master: Allen and True-Frost (who starred with Scott in Singles) are in rare form. Ultimately the film manages a warm, offbeat appeal despite its flaws, and it has real heart.