Thursday, May 12, 2005

Off the Map

OFF THE MAP (Campbell Scott, 2003)

OFF THE MAP focuses on the Groden family, who lead fulfilling lives peacefully, simply, and together in the desert outside Taos, New Mexico. They don't have electricity or a telephone and don't need them. The Grodens can get just about anything they need from the land. What nature doesn't provide, the junkyard does. They’re a creative and resourceful bunch. For instance, whip-smart eleven-year-old Bo (Valentina de Angelis) keeps a steady stream of free snacks flowing into their household by writing carefully worded letters of consumer dissatisfaction to food manufacturers.

OFF THE MAP takes place during a pivotal summertime for the family. Bo’s desire to be less separated from society becomes more pronounced. Her mother Arlene (Joan Allen) struggles to alleviate husband Charley’s (Sam Elliott) deep depression. Since the Grodens get by on less than five thousand dollars annually, money amassed through Charley’s veteran’s benefits and the sale of preserves and honey, they haven’t filed a tax return in years, which brings IRS employee William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) to their door.

William’s arrival delivers two shocks to his system: the sight of Arlene naked in the garden and a bee sting that lays him out for days. Upon his recovery, William decides to take up residence with the Grodens and follow a path more satisfactory than tax collection.

OFF THE MAP’S rhythms are slower than those to which we’re accustomed in our daily lives and in most films--it takes time to breathe, to savor the present and not get bogged down in all the little things that often dominate our attention--so it requires some time to adjust. The experience of adapting to a less hurried pace reminded me of easing into SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER…AND SPRING and shedding the tension of modern life. Both films utilize stunning locales that showcase nature’s beauty and permanence to enhance the effect. In OFF THE MAP Juan Ruiz Anchía’s sun-soaked cinematography and Campbell Scott’s unpretentious direction capture the spirit of the land.

OFF THE MAP’S plot, what little of it there is, unwinds gradually. Screenwriter Joan Ackermann adapted the script from her own play, yet the narrative approach is more akin to what’s found in a novel than a film or theatrical production. While few allusions are made to the characters’ backgrounds and their futures are essentially unknown, there’s a strong sense of what is behind these people and what is to come, as if the film plucked its story from the middle of a larger work. Near the film’s end past and future are elegantly merged in a slow dissolve, like a pinhole camera photograph that has taken years to develop, that shows the family by the road.

OFF THE MAP isn’t concerned with the characters’ destinations but how they manage day to day. The tactic permits the film to contain many scenes that would ordinarily be omitted but which make for some of OFF THE MAP’S most pleasurable moments. In one scene, Arlene is working on a car and asks William for a wrench. The camera pans to show that William has walked away to look at the horizon and absorb the view. Scott lets the camera linger there and be awestruck with the natural wonder. Instances such as this reveal more about the characters and reasons for their actions than long monologues and dialogues could. Charley is a man of few words, literally. When he walks a long way to see his friend George (J.K. Simmons), he doesn’t need to say a thing to be understood, although their talk and Charley’s unusual request add some appreciated levity. Unadorned talk also holds true when Arlene approaches Bo about a letter she wrote to an advice columnist. It isn’t an enormous crisis that leads to a long conversation but an issue mother and daughter will sort out as part of their daily routine, in this case, after cleaning and skinning a bear. The cast’s quiet, earthy performances imbue the film with calmness and grace.

Grade: B+

(Review originally appeared in a slightly different form as part of my Deep Focus Film Fest opening night coverage)

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