Film — Off the Map (PG-13)

Off the Map (PG-13)

by Amy Diaz

A precocious girl grows up hunting, farming, reading stories by candlelight and dreaming of Girl Scouts and televisions in 1970s New Mexico in the charming Off the Map.

Bo (Valentina de Angelis ) is being raised “off the map,” her family’s description for the back-to-the-land, self-sustaining existence lived in the wilderness near Taos. Arlene (Joan Allen), Bo’s mother, is part Hopi and has a kinship-with-nature approach to their life. Bo’s father Charley (Sam Elliot) is a veteran (though of what is not specified) who doesn’t want to work for anyone else, preferring to build and repair his own house, truck, plumbing and appliances, grow his own food, farm his own animals and generally live a life that requires as little dependence on others as possible. For Arlene, who has been homeschooled to a startling level of intelligence and self-confidence, this life is completely horrible, in that dramatic teenager way. In addition to the many letters she writes attempting to bilk large companies out of free merchandise she also comes up with an assortment of schemes to get herself out of this television-less environment, one of which may involve the credit card she enrolls herself for.

Another scheme forms when she hears that her parents are being audited. Arlene finds this amusing — the family earns only a few thousand dollars a year, mostly from selling crafts as a way to supplement the things they can’t make, grow or trade for. But she’s also afraid. Charley has slipped into a deep depression, crying and moving ghostly and wordless through the house. Arlene has no idea how to handle this, though she hits upon the idea of drugs while reading an article about depression at the prison library where she teaches reading. She urges family friend George (J.K. Simmons) to go to a psychiatrist and claim depression in hopes of scoring some medication.

It’s about this time that the tax auditor shows up. William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) stumbles upon the house in something of a daze. He’s been searching for them for four days, he tells the family, and has spent the last two nights in his car. To heighten his sense of unreality, he comes upon the family when Arlene is out in the garden, weeding, naked. Stunned, William gets his second jolt of shock when he realizes he’s been stung several times by bees. Rather than being the bringer-of-modernity Bo had hoped for, William awakes after a three-day allergic reaction to find himself in the middle of an identity crisis that ultimately leads him to become an artist.

The thoughts of Bo serve as the story’s narration and the voice is of an adult Bo (Amy Brenneman), who looks back with as much amusement as wistfulness at her 12-year-old self. This leads to plenty of reflections that, on paper, would sound too Pollyanna-ish to be believed but the movie nonetheless is sweet, nostalgic and sleepily charming. The real appeal is of the actors, especially Allen and de Angelis, who turn in amazingly nuanced performances despite the occasionally Hallmark-movie-like sentiments of the story. Allen is especially impressive because, as in The Upside of Anger, she shows her ability to play a grown-up — no easy task when most actresses are bunnies until they play inappropriate grandmas. Arlene is an adult woman, sure of herself but still frightened and able to show a complexity of character that most movie women don’t get to have.

Off the Map is that rarity among movies — a movie for and about families (with older children) that a family would actually enjoy watching.

- Amy Diaz

 
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