Off the Map

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“Off the Map,” which premiered at Sundance in 2003, is a quintessential Sundance movie. Its plot is simple, its artsy, quirky characters relate to each other in unusual ways, and its theme deals with the vague notion of “navigating through life.” If pressed, I could name 20 other movies fitting that description that I’ve seen at Sundance.

Which is not a criticism, necessarily, but merely an observation. “Off the Map” is actually a rather charming drama, albeit a talky one. It has some smart, fine-tuned performances and is directed by Campbell Scott, who is a smart, fine-tuned actor himself, so there you go.

Framed by an unnecessary present-day focus on the now-grown-up narrator (played by Amy Brenneman), the film is actually set in 1974 on a remote homestead in Taos, N.M. It is home to the Groden family — parents Charley (Sam Elliott) and Arlene (Joan Allen), and their 12-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis) — who live a peaceful, existence “off the map,” as Bo puts it. They have no indoor plumbing, telephone or television. They live off trinkets that Arlene makes and sells in town, and most of their food they grow, hunt or reel in themselves.

Bo is reaching an age where such a life is no longer interesting, and she longs to go to a public school. Her hippie mother (who gardens in the nude) has bigger worries at the moment, though, as Charley has suffered from a profound depression for several weeks, unable to function and barely willing to speak. Arlene enlists Charley’s best friend, the slightly dim George (J.K. Simmons), to help her in obtaining medication for him, but she wonders if he’d even be willing to take it. Even today, manly men such as Charley don’t often admit they need pharmaceutical help for emotional problems; you can imagine what it was like in 1974.

In the midst of all this, the Grodens are visited by William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), a tax auditor sent by the I.R.S. to determine why the Grodens have not paid taxes in several years. The reason is simply that they don’t have any real income to speak of, but William — a nice, polite man who is immediately smitten with the lovely Arlene — must do his duty and make the necessary reports. He timidly enters the Groden home, unsure what sort of people these are with no phone or toilet, and then falls ill, lapsing into a three-day fever and semi-coma. When he awakens, he feels differently about life and wants to share this rural, communal existence with the Grodens.

Adapted by Joan Ackermann from her stage play (hence the talkiness), the film’s performances are its greatest assets. Sam Elliott, so cowboyish in his demeanor and voice, is a brilliant choice to play Charley because he is exactly the sort of man you would not expect to be grappling with clinical depression. Elliott plays the role perfectly, slightly stylized (do depressed people really just refuse to speak altogether?), and with a palpable sadness about him.

He is supported by the other leads, all of whom function smoothly as a cast and as individuals. Even the film’s setting feels like a character, the beautiful desert landscapes New Mexico evoking thoughts of loneliness and isolation. It makes the eventual resolution of the family’s problems seem all the more sweet and satisfying.

B (1 hr., 51 min.; PG-13, some non-sexual nudity, a little mild profanity.)

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