3½ stars (out of 4)
The mysterious alchemy of arthow it's born and how it survives its creatorsis the central subject of actor-director Campbell Scott's "Off the Map," a lovely film, shot near D.H. Lawrence's old ranch near Taos, N.M., which tells the story of a sweetly eccentric family: 11-year-old daughter Bo Groden (Valentina de Angelis), mother Arlene (Joan Allen) and father Charley (Sam Elliott).
It's an idyllic existence, at least for Bo, who roams the desert, making it a playground. Meanwhile, Arlene crafts a magical ranch lifestyle and Charley lives in a mysterious shell of silence. Residing in sun-drenched countryreminiscent of Sam Peckinpah's westerns and George Herriman and Krazy Kat's comic strip Coconino Countysubsisting on less than $5,000 a year, well under the federal income tax radar, the Grodens are a charming but tempestuous bunch. Their unselfconscious artistry and non-conformist example even spur the uptight young Internal Revenue Service agent sent to find them (Jim True-Frost) into becoming an artist himself.
Agent William Gibbs moves in with them and starts a brief but ultimately legendary career as an indigenous "cult" painter. Like Paul Gauguin, Gibbs trades an orderly, bourgeois life for the charming disorder and unrepressed emotion of the artist's life and the world he finds with the Grodens, including earth-mother Arlene, with whom he falls deeply in love.
This story, adapted by Joan Ackermann from her play, has the richness of a fine little novel. It's told in flashback, from the present-day vantage of the adult Bo (Amy Brenneman), and though it may seem improbable in outline, it's so convincingly drawn and so richly and empathetically played by the whole cast that we tend to accept everything. Indeed, we might accept Scott's film even if it plunged right into the mode of Latin American magic realism that always seems just on the fringes of the naturalistic narrative here.
"Off the Map" is one of those sweet, intelligent, nicely made films that somehow drops off the map itself. I first saw it two years ago at the Chicago International Film Festival and I've been waiting, a bit impatiently, for it to show up. Scott's second film as solo directorhe also co-directed the wonderful "Big Night" with Stanley Tucciit's an almost complete success within its modest boundaries. I can't imagine anyone with a taste for the alternative-lifestyle studio movies of the early '70smade by directors like Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, John Cassavetes and othersnot loving it, at least a little.
For Allen, it's one of the strongest and most deeply sympathetic of all her recent roles, a much richer part than the embittered wife she plays in the soon-to-be-released "The Upside of Anger." For True-Frost and De Angelis, it's an occasion for two very affecting showcase roles; for Elliott, it's a chance for an effortlessly virile actor to show a vulnerable side.
Dozens of big studio turkeys, based on cliched scripts and drowned in high-priced effects, have come and died since I first saw "Off the Map." But it stayed so touchingly and amusingly in my memory that finding it again was like renewing a friendship. As with many of the best non-conformist American indies and foreign films, it's taken much too long for "Off the Map" to achieve distribution, and it's been our loss.
"Off the Map"
Directed by Campbell Scott; written by Joan Ackermann, based on her play; photographed by Juan Ruiz Anchia; edited by Andy Keir; production designed by Chris Shriver; music by Gary DeMichele; music supervisor Marc Campbell; produced by Campbell Scott, George Van Buskirk. A Holedigger Films presentation and release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for nudity and thematic elements).
Arlene - Joan Allen
Bo - Valentina de Angelis
Charley - Sam Elliott
George - J.K. Simmons
William Gibbs - Jim True-Frost
Adult Bo - Amy Brenneman