Within the past seven years, Campbell Scott has quietly become an important indie hyphenate, producing and starring in notable art house circuit films including Big Night, Roger Dodger, and the current The Secret Lives of Dentists. His passion for the craft of acting is obvious; it's now also clearly visible in his own directing, with the unconventional and often beautiful family tale, Off the Map.
Based on the play by Joan Ackermann (and adapted by Ackermann for the screen), Off the Map recalls one summer in the life of an offbeat family living off the land in rural New Mexico. It's essentially a series of dialogue-driven scenarios that actors like Joan Allen and Sam Elliott can sink their teeth into; Scott guides them there while avoiding any unnecessary scene-chewing or melodrama that could come with the subject matter. That's an accomplishment in itself -- but the visual dreaminess and charm that Scott weaves into, and wraps around, his performances elevate the film into a poignant and thoughtful work of art.
Off the Map exists in the mind of Bo Groden (Valentina de Angelis), a bold, inquisitive 12-year-old girl, the only child of Arlene (Allen), an earthy no-nonsense family stronghold, and Charley (Elliott), a secretive, silent man suffering from unbearable depression. Bo tells of the one summer (presumably in the late 1960s) that served as the best -- and maybe also the worst -- of her life, during months of Dad's unstoppable crying and an audit from the IRS.
The visit from Uncle Sam comes in the form of William Gibbs (Steppenwolf theater veteran Jim True-Frost), a misplaced soul, a Massachusetts native who's lived in New Mexico about 30 days, spending four of them just trying to find the Grodens' house. The near-perfect True-Frost gives William a curious mix of hesitancy, assuredness and heartbreaking sadness, making him a true fit in the Groden household. Through a set of circumstances both small and large, he stays.
Through her limited relationships, including that with her Dad's dependable, lonely best friend, George (J.K. Simmons), Bo forms her ideas, dreams, and understanding that life can be unfair, haphazard, and painfully beautiful all at the same time. The young de Angelis, in her first film, conveys this remarkably well with an infectious confidence.
She's in good company with actors like Allen -- who could make any man fall in love while watching this film -- and Elliot, who tackles one of the most vulnerable characters of his career.
Scott lovingly packages the impressive performances and poetic screenplay, applying just the right amount of artistic flourish without overdoing it. There's the prerequisite New Mexico sunrise, but it doesn't drive the scene -- it just kind of is. The Grodens have their offbeat nature -- weeding in the nude, living without running water or electricity -- but Scott doesn't present them with the forced, quirky style that too many filmmakers see as "charming." In fact, his gorgeously framed wide shots (usually within the family house), letting the words and actors do the talking, are the visual strength of the film.
Off the Map's weaknesses, including a long conclusion and an unnecessary opening setup, are easily overlooked. Campbell Scott's warm, inviting film has the meandering pace of a special time when the summer goes on forever and the world has a bit more clarity.
The DVD includes a commentary track and two Sundance Channel featurettes.
Reviewed at the 2003 Boston Film Festival.