Off the Map (2003)

2005-03-11 (Limited release)

Campbell Scott’s not-so-new film (it’s been on a shelf since 2003) is structured as extended flashback, with Amy Brennemen narrating the year-or-so of revelation for her 12-year-old self, named Bo. Played by Valentina de Angelis back in 1974, Bo is an inquisitive, trusting, precocious girl, the sort of girl who appears frequently in independent U.S. movies that examine the essential quirk that comprises the U.S. independent moviescape.

Bo lives, as the title Off the Map suggests, an offbeat existence, in the desert near Taos. Her blithe spirit mom Arlene (Joan Allen) and depressed war veteran dad Charley (Sam Elliot) look after her, mostly, but she’s also left to figure out lots on her own. And adults are surely peculiar, whether as models of what to do or not do. Though Bo loves her parents and feels generally at ease in the life they have made for her — so apart from so-called civilization and so careful to nurture her appreciation for nature and “native” spirituality — she’s also thinking that she wants to, you know, go to school, maybe mingle with some kids her own age and get a look at the “other” side. Bo’s also perceptive enough to be worried about her dad, as his depression seems boundless, and even her mother is making efforts to engage him in occasional conversation.

And so it’s not exactly surprising that Bo is encouraged when a bit of disruption befalls the household, in the form of IRS agent William (Jim True-Frost). Though he means to assess their status (they haven’t filed in years, living off VA checks and Arlene’s handicrafts), William almost instantly lurches into fever and unconsciousness. When he wakes, looking up into Arlene’s watchful face, he discovers a deep love for this seeming angel, as well as a yen to paint her garden (this would be more or less literal, and he spends apparent years doing it, even becoming something of an artistic sensation in his obsession).

Adapted by Joan Ackermann from her play, Off the Map is part paean to natural wonders and part chamber piece for actors who know how to work their nuances (including J. K. Simmons as George, Charley’s endlessly naïve best friend). That’s not so say that every scene grants easy nuance. Some of the metaphorical pints come crashing — the coyote that Arlene likes to watch is a sign of a dying wilderness; her gardening in the nude introduces William to the spiritual niceties of the body, and Bo’s yearning for the sea marks her resistance to her parents’ hippie-dippy ideals. The movie digs into pain and, forgiveness, the arbitrariness of market values (William’s commercial success is convenient, but not so convincing) and vaguely noted government failures (though no one speaks it, his depression appears to be war-related and wholly untreated). But its commentary on such details of daily life is mostly lost in a meandering, observational style.

And yet, at the film’s center — rather submerged — lies a nicely detailed consideration of gender expectations, as none of the boys and girls quite manage ordinary behaviors. Though William’s massive doting on Arlene (or even George’s off-screen romancing of a psychiatrist he’s been seeing, in order to be prescribed pills to fix Charley’s condition) might be mistaken for his search for the perfect woman, the movie links him more closely to Charley. Both are nearly but not quite immobilized by depression. Charley confesses, with a mix of embarrassment and relief, “I’m a damn crying machine. That’s why I drink so much water, or I won’t have any fluids left in me.” William nods in quiet accord: “I’ve never not been depressed.” They are fluid, these two, and so they might model a new masculinity, sensitive and resilient, open to change and even insight.

The fact that they’re sharing such tragedies while Richard Nixon is resigning (overheard on the radio) suggests a certain harmony of the universe: as U.S. governance is being passed on to Gerald Ford, it’s not surprising to learn that the IRS is corrupt (or has been used to threaten folks on the Enemies’ List) and credit cards solicit outrageous first-time spending from 12-year-olds (this turn of events involves some major imagination on Bo’s part, as well as Mastercard’s). Bo’s precociousness and the film’s affection for her enable hope that the planet isn’t so relentlessly doomed as her amazing year might suggest.


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