- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 10, 2005

Behold and rejoice: “Off the Map,” directed by Campbell Scott in collaboration with regional playwright Joan Ackermann, is perhaps the most affecting and accomplished American movie of the year thus far.

Miss Ackermann’s memory play was introduced at her theater company in Great Barrington, Mass., more than a decade ago. An early admirer, Mr. Scott persisted in developing it for the screen.

The film was shot entirely in the scenically splendid and haunting desert country of northern New Mexico, near Taos. This region is home to the principal characters, an admirably close-knit and resourceful family of three, recalled during a period of crisis in 1974: Arlene and Charley Groden (Joan Allen and Sam Elliott) and their extremely precocious and imaginative adolescent daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis, a lovely and bracing newcomer).

An adult and seemingly melancholy Bo is portrayed by Amy Brenneman in brief episodes at the beginning and end of the story. This Bo is also the narrator. The girl and the woman are linked pictorially at the outset in a lingering double image that is then echoed beautifully at the fade-out. This bridges a time gap of about 25 years with a brilliantly realized time-lapse composition confirming a homecoming on a stretch of highway near the Groden residence.

The crisis concerns the man of the house. Charley has been in a state of depression for months. His womenfolk and a devoted, taciturn buddy named George (J.K. Simmons) would prefer to wait out the condition, but it’s reached the point where they’re getting a little desperate. Arlene presumes on George’s friendship in hopes of securing anti-depressants without a legit prescription. Charley, a self-reliant tower of strength when well, is loath to consult doctors or consume drugs.

His skills as a handyman who can build and repair anything are essential to the family’s independence, which emphasizes barter at the expense of wage-earning. Between their bohemianism and hardy pioneering spirit, the Grodens are wittily contrived to reconcile extremes in the ongoing cultural wars.

Both husband and wife pride themselves on managing outside the conventional money economy. The physical and emotional authority of Joan Allen and Sam Elliott make it painful to think of either of them in a weakened state.

As we learn more about the Grodens, their isolated homestead acquires an enchanted quality. Maybe it’s something about the way Miss Allen reads Melville aloud by kerosene lanterns. Any temptation to pity the Grodens as impoverished or “dysfunctional” proves unfounded, although urban onlookers may be appalled at the prospect of intelligent people who are in no hurry to add indoor plumbing or enhance an annual income of about $5,000.

Not invulnerable despite the self-reliance, this family needs Charley’s energy and know-how as much as Arlene’s and Bo’s. The home-schooled, mischievous Bo, also a huntress and showoff, is teetering on the brink of a freakout because her bravado is inadequate to the threat of her dad’s shutdown.

Deliverance blunders onto the homestead in the person of a reluctant Internal Revenue Service agent, William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), new to the territory and exhausted after two days of futile searching for the Groden spread. He’s also enraptured at first sight by an Edenic flash of secluded domesticity: Arlene weeding her garden while naked.

Gracefully and affectionately observed by Mr. Scott, who does not act in the film, this fable of mutual rescue and renewal generates an astonishing amount of emotional intimacy and generosity. The characterizations combine the pathos of “The Member of the Wedding” with the optimism of “You Can’t Take It With You.”

It’s an engaging synthesis, and the New Mexico locations contribute indispensably to the impression that marvels could loom on the horizon if the people sustain their loyalties, observe things closely and keep the faith.

Mr. Scott and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia display a facility for embedding us in the landscape, often with subtle lateral movements that slide the frame in leisurely, freshly revealing ways.

A small-scale but richly satisfying treasure, “Off the Map” deserves a lasting place in the same rarefied, esteemed company as “Citizens Band,” “Local Hero,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Ulee’s Gold.”

****

TITLE: “Off the Map”

RATING: PG-13 (Fleeting profanity, graphic violence, nudity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Campbell Scott. Screenplay by Joan Ackerman, based on her play. Cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia. Production design by Chris Shriver. Costume design by Amy Westcott. Editing by Andy Keir. Music by Gary DeMichele.

RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes

WEB SITE: www.offthemapmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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