Winsome tale of a little family that chose in 1974 to unplug themselves from the "grid" of middle class life and go live off the land in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. A windmill pumps their well water. They read by kerosene lamps. They grow vegetables. They've gradually stored away four years of food and three years of firewood.
Cash comes in the form of a small VA pension to the head of the household, Charley Groden (basso voiced Sam Elliott), plus some modest crop sales. All told, they take in about $5,000 a year. Which makes it curious indeed when they receive notice that the IRS is dispatching an agent to visit. But wait a minute, I'm getting ahead of things.
The other family members are Arlene Groden (the immensely versatile Joan Allen) and Bo (Valentina de Angelis), Charley and Arlene's precocious 12 year old daughter. A good friend, lonely bachelor George (J. K. Simmons), hangs around so much he seems like family too. The time in question here, when Bo was 12, actually was maybe a decade ago, for we are learning this story as a narrative reminiscence told to us by a now adult Bo.
The summer when she was 12 was marked not only by the advent of William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), the IRS man, but by the occurrence of Charley's first ever episode of deep depression. It went on for months. He sits mute most of the time. Eats little. Sleeps little. Cries softly a lot. Refuses to seek professional aid from the VA.
Arlene manages to keep things going, but her generally serene style is eroding as the weeks go by. It doesn't help that Bo is restless, tired of her isolation, chafing to go to regular school, get a credit card, move out into the larger world. Not one to hide her light, Bo complains eloquently about her boring life, even as she maintains a loving, respectful attitude toward her parents.
The arrival of William Gibbs destabilizes the precarious symmetry of these people's lives. Turns out Gibbs is depressed too: maybe not as severely as Charley, but it's gone on for many years. He just became an IRS agent lately, grasping at some possible change for the better. In thrall to Arlene's mystical ways and beauty, Gibbs drops out of the IRS, moves into an old schoolbus on the property, and takes up watercolor painting.
Arlene and Bo are both grateful for attention from a new face. And, perhaps in a house too small for two depressed males, Charley begins to come out of his shell, with some help from a borrowed bottle of antidepressant pills that fire up a manicky conclusion to his near catatonic state. Even George comes to life and goes hunting for a woman to marry.
This is a small film about unconventional people, folks who don't fit the molds of middle class, rich, arty or neurotic urbanity that typify the subjects of so much traditional fiction print and film. Adapted from a stage script by the playwright, Joan Ackermann, this work reminds me of the novels about quirky, offbeat people that have become so popular in the past few years.
I'm thinking of the work of authors like Louise Erdrich ("The Beet Queen"), E. Annie Proulx ("The Shipping News" which, incidentally, was adapted into a fine film that did not receive the recognition it deserved), or Anne Tyler ("Clockwinder," " Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," "A Slipping Down Life").
The movie is not without its hitches. Why is a coyote - to which Arlene had developed an intense spiritual connection - killed? How did Bo actually acquire that credit card and get approval to use it for such a grand and costly gift? The film starts somewhat bumpily. For a while it seems like Ms. de Angelis will overwhelm both her family and us viewers with her domineering intelligence. But with time, she, like the film itself, wins you over.
Indeed, "Off the Map" ends by charming you, making this film a pleasant surprise. It's of interest to compare "Off the Map" to another recent release about 1970s dropouts, Rebecca Miller's "The Ballad of Jack and Rose." That film more or less trashes the whole ideal of living a life according to values that run against the stereotypical middle class norms of acquiring material possessions and working to pay off the resultant debts.
The fact that Jack and his merry band failed to sustain their alternative way of life is implicitly presented as evidence that their aims were unsound, invalid. "Off the Map," on the other hand, conveys a better sense of what motivated people to drop out back then and shows that at least some dropouts achieved a measure of success.
I don't know why, but it took two years to bring this decent film to the screen (made in 2003, it is only receiving commercial distribution now). My rating: 7/10 (B). (Seen on 04/13/05). If you'd like to read more of my reviews, send me a message for directions to my websites.