Off the Map

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/18/05 16:17:05

"if the setting 'is like a character', does that make the characters dirt?"
3 stars (Just Average)

Off the Map takes place in the middle of nowhere, against a desert landscape that fills the screen and extends past its borders further than any eye can see. It's surprising that the film is an adaptation of a play; I'm not sure how that would work, with the implicit boundaries a stage's wings and backdrop create. The vastness of the land makes it, as they like to say, "like another character in the movie". It's not the most interesting or dynamic character, being mostly flat and made of dirt, but that it's in the running is an indication of how this movie doesn't live up to its potential.

I get the impression that Off the Map is autobiographical. There are 1970s period details even though the movie could easily be set today; it's framed by scenes of Amy Brenneman playing an adult version of 11-year-old Bo (Valentina de Angelis), and the latter half of the movie contains narration of what would happen later. It's events that could be worked into the screenplay, but aren't, perhaps because that's not what really happened. Or maybe not; for all I know, Joan Ackermann (adapting her own play) has never left the city, or she just wants to represent that not everything happens within a movie's timeframe.

The movie covers a period of several months in 1974; Bo's father Charley (Sam Elliott) has sunken into an impenetrable depression, barely talking or doing any sort of work around the house. His wife Arlene (Joan Allen) has about reached the end of her rope, and she schemes with Charley's best friend George, who as played by J.K. Simmons doesn't seem to have the head for scheming, to get him some drugs to treat him. Bo's quite capable of scheming, though, and she's starting to set her sights a little higher than writing letters about defective products she never purchased in order to get free samples back. Charley, Arlene, and Bo live off the grid (though that phrase hadn't been coined yet), forgoing electricity and a telephone, hunting for much of their food and recovering other items from the local dump. They own their house free and clear and earn what cash they need by selling crafts, so it's a surprise when the IRS dispatches William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) to collect their back taxes.

Gibbs, I guess, is meant to be a counterpoint to Bo. A would-be lawyer from Brookline, MA, he's sort of backed into his job doing audits for the IRS in New Mexico. After a bee sting lays him up at the house (and his car is stolen), he comes to love the whole disconnected existence (and Arlene). He finds himself inspired and takes up painting, using a set of watercolors Arlene had purchased to give Charley an outlet. He wants "less", while Bo would like to have new things, or to go new places.

Valentina de Angelis's Bo is probably the best thing about the movie. The performances around her are good, but she's the one with the spark of life, even if it's often selfish, irresponsible life. She is just a kid, after all, and even the ones as obviously intelligent as Bo don't necessarily comprehend that they're hurting people or creating a situation they can't get out of. It also means that since she's our narrator and viewpoint character, we get the same sense of something going on with Charley, Arlene, and William that we do - something's not right, but if there's any sexual component, well, it's out of Bo's conception and thus out of our perception. That's actually a pretty neat trick on director Campbell Scott's part, when you get right down to it: There have been many movies with child narrators where it's obvious the adults are up to something the kids can't understand, but which we in the audience can. Keeping the more sophisticated audience in the dark is an accomplishment.

Part of the reason Scott can do that is that Ackermann's characters are eccentric. Set this in Manhattan and, yeah, we'll assume that the neglected wife and the young artist are getting it on, but with depressed desert hermits? Who knows. Especially since we're given the "magic of the land" line. Now, the setting is a big part of the movie, but mainly as a setting - it's big and wild and isolating. No matter how many times Arlene tells us that the land is "powerful", that wound up just making me think less of her - we can see why Charley and William are attracted to the solitude, and Bo's known little else, but Arlene's just spitting out New Age-y tripe without us really seeing that this desert is actually healing and transformative.

(Although that perception may just be me. The characterization of the land as magical could easily speak to someone in the 99% of the population more spiritual than myself.)

If the point is mainly to portray Bo and William as people seeking what the other has, then the movie does a good job. We don't really get into Charley's or Arlene's heads, although we get a fair amount of shrink talk from William. It's also kind of frustrating that we don't really learn much about the adult Bo; Amy Brenneman gives the film's one truly flat performance, and she remains a cipher. I gather that in the original play, William has recently died and Bo is looking back at how he came into their lives, but here we've got little motivation for the flashback. If this time was a pivotal influence on who Bo would become, well, who is she?

There's enough to Off The Map to make it worth a watch - it looks nice and is filled with above-average performances, but feels kind of unfinished.

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