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Off the Map Reviews

Neatly adapted from the play by Joan Ackermann, actor-turned-director Campbell Scott's fourth feature is a sensitively played drama about an American family living off the grid in the northern New Mexico desert. It's 1974, during what 12-year-old Bo Groden (excellent newcomer Valentina de Angelis) refers to as the "summer of my father's depression." Charley Groden (Sam Elliott) is so depressed he can barely speak, and guzzles water to help replenish the fluids lost during his constant crying jags. Bo can't remember the last time he took her to the dump where they reclaim the fixable junk that fills their home, and the responsibility for Bo's home schooling and tending to the garden where they grow their own food has fallen on Charley's wife, Arlene (Joan Allen). The nuisance of the outside world intrudes when Arlene is notified that they're about to be audited by the IRS, which shouldn't come as much of a surprise: The Grodens haven't filed in seven years. When rookie IRS rep William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) finally manages to find them, he's amazed to find a family living comfortably without a phone or electricity and, with the exception of Korean War veteran Charley's military pension and what Arlene makes selling crafts, almost entirely without money. Within moments of his arrival, William is repeatedly stung by the family's honeybees and collapses. When he emerges from his three-day fever, William is certain about nothing except that he's madly in love with Arlene. Arlene attributes his confusion to the mystical power of New Mexico, and invites William to stay as long as it takes for him to regain his bearings. William moves into the baby-blue, abandoned school bus that forms part of the Groden family compound and, while mooning over Arlene, begins painting an extraordinary mural using the watercolor set Charley's faithful Army buddy and neighbor, George (J.K. Simmons), brought to help rouse his old friend out of his depression. Narrated as one long memory by the adult Bo (Amy Brenneman), the film maintains a precocious child's view of this strange world in which everyone — adults included — is struggling to define themselves. Shooting a play on location doesn't always guarantee that the action will open up for the screen, and traces of the script's stagebound origins are evident in many of Scott's blocking decisions. But surprisingly, it works: The overwhelming natural expanse of the New Mexico desert is perfectly balanced by the psychic space Charley and Arlene create — the space where all the real action takes place.