Off the Map

on March 11, 2005 by Annlee Ellingson
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In few other films has setting played such an integral role as in “Off the Map.” It is the height of the hippie-dippie 1970s in New Mexico, where precocious adolescent Bo Groden (Valentina d'Angelis) is being raised and home-schooled on a homestead in the middle of the desert by her mom Arlene (Joan Allen) and dad Charley (Sam Elliott). Her father is profoundly depressed, a disposition that is slowly poisoning the little clan like, in a sample of screenwriter Joan Ackermann's exquisite writing, “fumigation mist filling our lungs.”

Further difficulties arise when William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) from the IRS stumbles onto their property wondering why they haven't filed tax returns for the past seven years. Bitten by a bee, he suffers an allergic reaction and is laid up for a couple of days with the Grodens. He falls in love with the place, and with Arlene, and never leaves.

Allen gives yet another fearless performance and is achingly attractive, even without makeup, dressed in flannel shirts, blue jeans and work boots. Elliott movingly captures the gravity of a man who cannot snap out of it, no matter how much he yearns to. And d'Angelis, around whom this film revolves, is a revelation--charming in her fascination of the stranger from the big city, her obsession with the ocean and her insistence, despite her obvious intellect, that Cape Cod is a state.

But the main character here is an acute sense of place--a place where one hunts for food but never for sport; where the only sounds are owls hooting in stereo; and where greater purpose is not defined by work but by art. During his stay with the Gordons, William discovers a passion for watercolors, his first work a 41-foot long portrait of the ocean painted on the back of a roll of wallpaper. The piece first hangs circumnavigating Bo's room, where it is positioned just at eye level when she lies down on her bed. Again, Ackermann's writing: “Swimming, feeling the curve of the planet in the small of my back, buoying me--like faith,” Bo says.

As can be expected, the cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia is stunning, even on the admittedly shoddy print screened at Sundance. As Arlene tells William when he professes his love for her, “New Mexico is a very powerful place,” as if that explains everything. Starring Joan Allen, Amy Brenneman, Valentina d Angelis, Sam Elliott, J K Simmons, Kevin Skousen and Jim True-Frost. Directed by Campbell Scott. Written by Joan Ackermann. Produced by Campbell Scott and George VanBuskirk. A Holedigger release. Drama. Unrated. Running time: 105 min.

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