Screens Dreaming of Oceans in New Mexico

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'Off the Map' is a sweet coming-of-age story

As far as Bo Groden is concerned, the great depression occurred during the summer of 1974. Most of Off the Map is a flashback to when her handsome, rugged father, Charley (Elliott), withdrew into despondent silences broken only by uncontrollable jags of weeping. Bo was 12 then, but, in an adult voiceover that provides occasional explanation throughout the film, she recalls that her father's gloom was "like some fumigator's mist filling our lungs."

Off the Map

Dir. Campbell Scott; writ. Joan Ackermann, from her own play; feat. Joan Allen, Valentina De Angelis, Sam Elliott, Jim True-Frost, J. K. Simmons (PG-13)
To an outsider, though, the three Grodens - Charley, Arlene (Allen), and Bo (De Angelis) - seem to lead an enviable existence amidst the desert grandeur of northern New Mexico. As unlikely as it is for a stranger to happen on their remote household, Off the Map, an outsider does arrive. IRS agent William Gibbs (True-Frost) comes to audit the Grodens' income tax records, on account of the fact that they have not filed in seven years. And they have not filed on account of the fact that they live off the land, bartering for what they do not hunt, fish, grow, or make for themselves. He is, notes Arlene, "the first person with a suit to find his way into our home." Astonished at the self-reliance of three resourceful people who manage to thrive without television, telephone, or money, William observes: "Your life is yours." He begins to wish that it were his as well.

A bee sting causes William to spend the night with the Grodens, and a revelation that the best things in life evade a 1040 form causes him to linger for years. But during the summer of 1974, Charley, who could be said to suffer from clinical depression if only he were willing to travel to a clinic, is not the genius of serenity William imagines him to be. William, whose mother hanged herself when he was six, is himself a barrel of fun, without the fun. "I've never not been depressed," he admits. When William and Charley sit across from each other oozing black bile, the film threatens to resemble Samuel Beckett in the Land of Enchantment. "I don't know who I am," states William. "Me neither," replies Charley. The repartee is not quite spry enough to pass for an homage to Billy Wilder.

Arlene, who tends her garden in the nude, and her inquisitive daughter Bo, who uses a credit card to get a yacht delivered to their doorstep, are considerably more perky. Bo's vast backyard is awesome to a visitor, yet she longs to live beside the ocean. Off the Map is the story of Bo's coming of age, coincident with her father's coming out of depression. Joan Ackermann adapted the screenplay from her own stage play, and, though the proceedings have been opened up to the majestic vistas surrounding Taos, the film still betrays the pacing and rhetoric of a theater production. Whimsy shapes the characters in ways better suited to the stage than the screen. When William, who morphed from short-order cook into IRS agent, suddenly becomes a world-class painter, it is just as capricious as if he had signed a contract to play professional hockey. Early in the script, he declares his love to Arlene, but the declaration has no consequences or resonances anywhere else in the film.

Like the Groden household, assembled out of items scavenged from the local dump, Off the Map is a work of cinematic bricolage, the quirkiness of John Irving appended to the Western ethos of Sam Shepard. Bo extorts free Moon pies from the manufacturer by pretending to have found maggots in a package. This is a sweet and likable confection, but I am wary of any other claims.

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