The Groden family lives out in the middle of the New Mexico desert, far from main roads. They grow, harvest, and/or kill all their own food, own their own home, and make what little money they need from crafts. They have no phone or indoor plumbing, and they haven’t paid taxes in several years. Since no one else is around, they can even walk around naked with impunity.
Folks, welcome to the hippie-style utopia of Off the Map, an adaptation of a Joan Ackermann play brought to the screen by actor Campbell Scott (whose directorial credits also include the meditative, overlong sci-fi flick Final). There’s very scant plot here; rather, it feels like a sort of escapist fantasy for celebrities in the big city who get tired of all the people surrounding them. It’s the sort of thing best enjoyed in 105-minute movies, as the reality of the situation tends to be that truly isolated places, however beautiful, get boring after a while if there’s nobody else to talk to.
Certainly they’re less fun for kids. Young Bo (newcomer Valentina de Angelis) is a whiz at hunting, and very precocious due to her home-schooled book-learning, but she likes nothing better than to stroll through Kmart, or imagine what it would be like to work in an office and have a credit card. And her dad, Charley (Sam Elliott), isn’t having the best time either. Overtaken with an inexplicable depression, he can barely even talk and mopes around silently while drinking nonstop glasses of water to replenish his tear ducts.
An adult Bo (Amy Brenneman) narrates the story via flashback; inevitably, it is the story of the Summer When Everything Changed. In the play, Bo was portrayed by a sole actress, narrating in the present, then jumping back into the scenes and playing young. Scott was smart enough to realize that this wouldn’t work onscreen, but he should’ve gone further, as the narration and present-day framing device aren’t needed either.
The event that changes things is the arrival of IRS auditor William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost, a friend of Scott’s since they acted together in Singles). Far from the clichéd images of taxmen as evil authority figures or anal-retentive nerds, he’s just kind of a naive dork, who is so taken with the image of Bo’s mother Arlene (Joan Allen) naked that he gets himself stung by bees and slips into a delusional fever (don’t be fooled by the PG-13; you see a whole lotta Allen in that one shot). Nursed back to health by mystical Hopi folk remedies — yes, Allen is playing Native American, an image achieved via fake tan and straight black hair — Gibbs decides that he is never going back to the office and will instead become a painter. In keeping with their whole utopian outlook, the Grodens permit him to stay as long as he pleases.
What little else ensues involves Bo’s increasing fascination with Gibbs and Arlene’s struggles with Charley’s depression. Gibbs decides that he loves Arlene more than anyone he has ever met, and she responds, “New Mexico is a very powerful place. Often, when people first get here, it’s a little overwhelming.” In this context, it’s not hard to see Gibbs as a stand-in for Scott and/or Ackermann, who appear to have been so taken with the scenery and the idea of living off the land that they forgot to add much to the mix. A couple of attempts at wacky humor fall flat — the Grodens mention an old pet goat of theirs named Harry Dean Stanton. It’s a nice homage to the famed character actor, perhaps, but with no TV or phones, how exactly do they know who Stanton is?
The film’s only other major character is George, a laconic redneck played by J.K. Simmons. A far cry from his hyperactive shtick as J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies, Simmons plays it understated, conveying a sad-sack quality that is more relatable than Charley’s irrational catatonia. When the two finally have it out, in a scene where Charley insists that George wrestle him and throws beer at his best bud until he complies, it’s the best scene in the movie. It’s so good, in fact, that it belongs in another, better movie.
But our protagonist isn’t George, unfortunately. It’s Bo, and she comes off as a bit of a know-it-all. That’s not inappropriate — without any friends her own age, she hasn’t had anyone take her down a few pegs, and she needs that. Her story just seems as if it’s inherently the least interesting. Why not make a movie about how Charley ended up in the middle of the desert — one that might explain his sadness now? Or tell the life story of George, or Gibbs? Those would likely be more lively, though they’re clearly not the stories Scott is interested in exploring.