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'Off the Map': In the Desert, A Family Blooms

Scenic Background Is a Co-Star in This Stagy Melodrama

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 11, 2005; Page C05

"New Mexico is a powerful place," a character says in "Off the Map." And director Campbell Scott has made sure that every frame of this lushly beautiful film reflects the potent, almost mystical, effect the region's plateaus, canyons and deserts have on their human inhabitants.

This quirky family melodrama, adapted by Joan Ackermann from her play of the same name, may at times be a bit too quirky for its own good, as one charmingly strange episode unfolds after another. But for sheer visual gorgeousness -- from its backdrop to its lead players -- viewers need look no further than this warm, often breathtaking film. "Off the Map" is a welcome vacation for senses woefully neglected during the long winter blahs.

A couple, played by Sam Elliott and Joan Allen, live off the grid in New Mexico with their precocious daughter (Valentina de Angelis). (Holedigger Studios)

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The promising newcomer Valentina de Angelis plays Bo Groden, an 11-year-old girl living with her parents, Arlene and Charley (Joan Allen and Sam Elliott), in the middle of nowhere. Aging hippies, Arlene and Charley live off the grid, eating only things they shoot, catch or grow, scrounging dumps for useful, high-quality castoffs and bartering for goods and services in nearby Taos.

A modern, uniquely American version of the Swiss Family Robinson, the Grodens live in a cozy handmade house that rises like a stalwart ship amid the pinyon trees and sage of the desert.

Bo leads an enchanted life, hunting with her very own bow and arrow and fishing for trout with her dad's best friend George (J.K. Simmons). She has a life any kid would kill for, and of course she hates it. Like Hemingway's Old Man dreaming of lions, Bo dreams of escaping to the places whose names are emblazoned on her Goodwill T-shirts.

The 1974 summer during which most of "Off the Map" transpires is one that finds Charley in the depths of a six-month depression, casting a pall over the house that fuels Bo's longing to get out. What's more, the Grodens, who haven't filed tax returns in several years, are soon to be audited, which can only bode ill.

As it turns out, the arrival of IRS agent William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) sends things into improbably cathartic directions, only a few of which most discerning viewers will buy. If "Off the Map" offers a welcome portrayal of a lifestyle hitherto unrepresented on-screen, the human purveyors of that lifestyle often come across as too good -- or their demons too convenient -- to be true. Allen departs from her usual persona of icy reserve to play a sunburned prairie heroine who likes to garden in the nude; Elliott, who delivers an almost entirely silent performance for the first two-thirds of the movie, cuts such an iconic figure of western machismo that he might as well be hewed from one of the surrounding red rocks.

And then there's Bo, a beguiling creature of impossible precociousness, who reads Forbes and histories of Spain, who sends erudite complaints to snack companies for free food, and whose hyper-literary style of speaking seems to come less from a 11-year-old's heart than a playwright's head. Little of the mannered, declamatory dialogue in "Off the Map" rings true, and the film's heightened theatricality makes its many strenuously colorful plot points come across as stagy and forced.

Despite these weaknesses, "Off the Map" is a joy to watch, mostly because of Juan Ruiz Anchia's dazzling cinematography, as well as performances from a cast of wonderful actors who manage to imbue Ackermann's often unconvincing characters with recognizable humanity. And they look great, which in this ravishing ode to the frontier spirit counts for quite a lot.

Off the Map (111 minutes, at Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated PG-13 for nudity and adult themes.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company