When the IRS agent finally found the isolated house, he saw a woman tending her garden in the nude. Wordlessly, he watched the impossible beauty in front of him, until a bee bit him on the hand and he got woozy and ended up on the living room couch, where he laid sick for days. In Off the Map, actor/director Campbell Scott treats viewers to a sweet, meandering visit with an extended family in the harsh, beautiful wilds of 1974 Taos.
Please note that when I say meandering, I'm not kidding around. Off the Map moseys along, expecting you to slow down and meet its relaxed pace. Those who opt to relax and just let the movie happen will be treated to a marvelously droll performance by Joan Allen, well-measured work by Jim True-Frost and an irritating, but accurate portrayal of restless adolescence by Valentina de Angelis. Oh, and I must not overlook the pleasure of watching tough guys Sam Elliott (the general in The Hulk) and J.K. Simmons (the newspaper publisher in Spider-Man) play against type as sensitive guys.
The set up: In 1974 Taos, 11-year-old Bo Groden (de Angelis) lives a quiet off-the-map life with her earthy, eccentric mother Arlene (Allen) and her father, Charley (Elliott), who is currently suffering from a whale of a case of depression. The extended family consists of devoted friend George (Simmons) and, not long after the film begins, newcomer William Gibbs (True-Frost), a hapless IRS agent who arrives with tax questions, but finds that his personal issues are more compelling. Amy Brenneman is all right as the adult Bo.
Off the Map, adapted by Joan Ackermann from her play of the same name, succeeds because the script is literate, witty and credible, because the Mark Isham score is evocative, because the Taos landscape and skies are gorgeous, and because Campbell Scott is brave enough to take the film as far off the map as its characters. His refusal to follow cinematic storytelling conventions results in a movie with an otherworldly, timeless feel.
He even has the courage to let young Bo be as annoying as any 11-year-old-who-wants-to-see-the-world-but-instead-is-stuck-in-her-parent's-quasi-hippie-Eden would be. Off the Map cares about its characters, even the annoying ones, and so do we.
Or me, anyhow.