Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa (documentary)

The 400 or so people who live on “The Mesa” — a 15-square-mile area of New Mexico without water or electricity — have moved there for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, the documentary about them, “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa,” starts by showing the most idiotic ones.

We meet a guy called Dreadie Jeff, so named because he has dreadlocks. He’s wearing a T-shirt that says, “If you can read this, the b**** fell off!,” which is a reference either to motorcycling or sex, or possibly both. He moved out here because it’s the only place you can be FREE, man. The gubmint won’t let you live your own life if you’re in a city.

What is it that Dreadie Jeff wants to do that regular society won’t allow? Well, he wants to stand around all day shootin’ stuff, for one thing, which of course you can’t do in a city. He also wants to live in a community where marijuana is the primary form of currency. So The Mesa is just right for him!

He speaks of his hate and mistrust of the government. Out here on The Mesa, he’s totally away from all that! Oh, except for once a month when he and his fellow Mesans go into town to get food from the food bank. They can’t really grow much out in the desert, and none of them have jobs or money, so they need those handouts to survive. Keep the government away from me! Unless, you know, they’re offering free stuff. Then I’ll take it. But give anything back to society? NO THANK YOU!

So I was hatin’ Dreadie Jeff, and I didn’t care much for one of the next guys to appear, either: Gene, aka Gecko, who left his wife in Connecticut and brought their four young children to live with him in a trailer on The Mesa. He “home schools” them, which is to say, they sit around all day and play video games (they have a generator). He never explains what it was about life in Connecticut that was so unbearable, but I guess we’re supposed to be happy that he has finally fulfilled his dreams of living in filth and squalor and producing a second generation of ignorant deadbeats.

Luckily, as “Off the Grid” (directed by brothers Jeremy and Randy Stulberg) progresses, it introduces us to a greater diversity of people, and facts are revealed that cast the whole experiment in a more sympathetic light. Many of the residents are Gulf War veterans, for example, and suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental problems. They ought to be in civilization getting help, yes, but you can sympathize with their desire to flee. One of them, a fellow called Maine, has cancerous tumors throughout his body, the result of his exposure to chemicals while fighting in the Gulf War. His patriotism is genuine and stirring.

Then there’s Stan, the grizzled old fellow who looks like Uncle Jesse on “The Dukes of Hazzard.” The Mesa is a common destination for the area’s teenage runaways, and they always stop at Stan’s little trailer first. He’s avuncular and kindly. His interactions with a girl named Virginia, who is heartbreakingly screwed up and whose life is on a pitifully wrong path, are very tender.

The Stulbergs provide portraits of a dozen or so Mesa residents, and they’re consistently non-judgmental of them (certainly more so than I’ve been). The doc runs just 70 minutes, but it’s packed with so many small insights into humanity that it probably didn’t need to be any longer. You can come away from it understanding people a little better — not agreeing with some of their reasoning, maybe, but with an appreciation for how they think and what “freedom” is for them.

B- (1 hr., 10 min.; Not Rated, probably R for abundant harsh profanity, some bathing nudity.)