Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 31, 2005
Off the Map
Starring Valentina de Angelis, Joan Allen, and Sam Elliott. Directed by Campbell Scott. Written by Joan Ackermann, based on her own play. Rated PG-13.
Desert Sad

The erratic Off the Map is a chamber drama in a wide open space.


Best known as a terrific actor, in such films as The Secret Lives of Dentists and Roger Dodger, Campbell Scott has also been a director, though his track record there is somewhat spottier. His debut behind the camera came in 1996 when he co-directed the magnificent Big Night along with Stanley Tucci. The two haven’t collaborated since, and it’s possible that they wouldn’t have duplicated that achievement even if they’d stayed together. As a solo filmmaker, Scott elicits cool, finely detailed performances from his cast (much like his own acting work), and he’s always keenly sensitive to his material’s emotional nuances. Unfortunately, his filmmaking is totally lacking in dramatic structure or zest. His way-too-understated tv adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and his somnolent 2001 psychological drama Final were both intelligent, scrupulous, and fatally dull.
His latest film Off the Map isn’t fatally dull, but it comes dangerous close at times. Based on Joan Ackermann’s play, it’s told from the point of view of Cecilia “Bo” Groden (Valentina de Angelis), an 11-year-old girl living with her parents in the New Mexico desert. It’s the summer of 1974, but except for owning a truck, the Grodens live like it’s the 19th century, off the land, with no electricity or plumbing. With Bo itching for contact with the outside world and her dad Charley (Sam Elliott) sunk into a miasma of depression, her mom Arlene (Joan Allen) is left to try to hold the family together. Rounding out their household is William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), an IRS agent who comes to audit them, only to be laid unconscious by a bee sting as soon as he arrives. Nursed back to health, he finds the desert life suits him and quits the agency to take up painting.
Ackermann’s writing is full of rather simplistic romantic waxing about the Groden’s simple life (the coyote that Arlene spots in the brush is a metaphor that would’ve been better left untouched), and the film adaptation never threatens to break free of its stage roots, despite its many shots of the natural scenery. On one of the rare occasions when Scott tries to be cinematic, he only confuses things, as when William stares awestruck at the vast expanse of desert while “Me and Mrs. Jones” floods the soundtrack, for some reason.
What bails this movie out is its small, tight ensemble cast. A cute kid in the lead would certainly have destroyed this film, but the bright, engagingly odd de Angelis is a real find. An appropriately unscrubbed, bronzed Allen makes a totally different impression here than she does in The Upside of Anger, while True-Frost (best known as a detective on tv’s The Wire) gives a melancholy-laced comic performance, as does J.K. Simmons as Charley’s best friend, an unambitious sad case with no clue as to how to lift his buddy’s spirits. Even Elliott, who’s been guilty of overdoing his cowboy act in the past, manages restraint to the point of catatonia. These performers and their sense of a self-contained and somewhat restive community are at the heart of Off the Map, and they’re responsible for the modest insight afforded by this ambitious but undercooked film.

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