I saw Off the Map last night, and what a strange night it was. I had been in a pretty lousy mood all day, but I was looking forward to the screening of the film. While parallel parking at the theater, my passenger side rear view mirror got snagged on a phone pole that was a bit too close to the road. I entered the theater even more displeased.
Nearly two hours later I emerged with a strange smile on my face and my mind racing. I had just witnessed a truly great film. That I knew immediately, but putting all the pieces together would take time. For most of my drive home I was following a car with a bumper sticker that read “the best things in life are not things.” Then it hit me.
Off the Map is the story of Bo (played by Valentina de Angelis for most of the film as the young version of Bo), her mother Arlene (Allen), and her father Charley, a man who has depression but no one knows why. They live in a secluded area of New Mexico on a yearly income of less than $5,000, far below today’s poverty line. Bo is a bright young girl who dreams big and spends her time reading books on the history of Spain, as one example. She is wise beyond her years, even if the only ones who notice are we, the audience.
One day the family is notified by the IRS that they are about to be audited. William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) is the man that shows up to do the job, but he has no idea of the change that his life is about to experience. Family friend George (Simmons) is also along for the ride during a summer that none of them will forget.
Off the Map is told from Young Bo’s perspective with voice overs done by her adult counterpart (Brenneman). The film’s narrative style consists of short scenes with events that seemingly come out of left field but in due time prove their worth. It’s a story of understanding and a story of what is really important in life.
The driving force behind the success of the film is its wonderful cast, headlined by Joan Allen. She possesses the perfect range for this role and brings an emotional impact every time she is on screen. Allen has always been a gifted actress, but so far in 2005, with The Upside of Anger and this film (which was actually filmed in 2003), she is proving to be one of Hollywood’s best unsung actresses by the masses. Newcomer Valentina de Angelis is a true revelation as young Bo. This is a role and character that wins us over from minute one, and young de Angelis keeps the tone throughout the film. She is a smart-aleck, but an inquisitive smart-aleck. Sam Elliott is also fantastic as the up-and-down depressed father. He effortlessly conveys emotion with his eyes and turns in one of the best “silent” performances of recent memory. Lest I forget dry humor specialist J.K. Simmons and Jim True-Frost, a truly dynamic actor who is given plenty to do as the confused William Gibbs.
The director is Campbell Scott, an accomplished actor who has a keen eye behind the camera. He captures the New Mexico landscape in all its beauty and truly knows the characters penned by writer Joan Ackermann. The screenplay is beautifully written, concise, and full of magical scenes that will be in your memory for quite some time. Ackermann has a knack for setting and character quirks as well as wonderful exchanges between Bo and the rest of the cast. There is a large amount of humor in the screenplay that is always fresh.
Off the Map is a quiet gem that will likely be in and out of theaters rather quickly, unfortunately. I, for one, feel privileged to have seen it. It is one of those rare films that finds a way of making the viewer feel like a better person after having seen it, and films like that are few and far between.
Studio: Manhattan Pictures International
Length: 105 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for nudity and thematic elements.
Theatrical Release: January 23, 2003 (Sundance Film Festival) / May 15, 2003 (Cannes Film Festival) / March 11, 2005 (Limited)
Directed by: Campbell Scott
Written by: Joan Ackermann. Based upon her play of the same name.
Cast: Amy Brenneman, Valentina de Angelis, Joan Allen, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons, J.D. Garfield