The sort of rich character detailing more common to theater and novels than to films can be found in "Off the Map." Campbell Scott's latest foray behind the camera most excels as a subtly observed study of how the dynamics within a close-knit family can shift over time.

The sort of rich character detailing more common to theater and novels than to films can be found in “Off the Map.” Superficially an agreeably anachronistic livin’-off-the-land drama about some off-center individualists pursuing their lives — as the title suggests — beyond the margins of society, Campbell Scott’s latest foray behind the camera most excels as a subtly observed study of how the dynamics within a close-knit family can shift over time. Pic’s unmelodramatic nature and unmomentous subject matter will make this a tough sell even on the review-driven specialized circuit; more fests should sign on, and a theatrical life is worth a shot from a small distrib that believes in it, but best results long term may lie in high-quality cable and tube situations internationally.

In its ’70s period, New Mexico high desert setting and implicit antisocial mindset, “Off the Map” unavoidably calls to mind the many back-to-basics American indie efforts of 10-15 years ago. But the big difference is that this resonant new picture, which screenwriter Joan Ackermann adapted from her own stage play, has absolutely no high-minded environmental/spiritual/political/countercultural overtones. The family here is not making a point and has no agenda in living so far apart from the mainstream; it’s just what life and circumstances have led it to.

Indulging the audience with no backstory, Ackermann and Scott simply open up on “the summer my father was depressed,” in the words of Bo, now a grown professional woman (Amy Brenneman, basically here to narrate), then a precocious sprig of 11 or 12 (Valentina de Angelis). Charley (Sam Elliott), a grizzled Westerner, has become so deeply despondent he has disengaged from reality, including his wife and daughter.

Arlene (Joan Allen), whose mind seems to be in an alternate universe a good deal of the time, gardens (in the nude) and teaches prisoners, while Bo hunts animals with bow and arrow, writes to food companies complaining of finding insect parts in their boxes (so as to be sent free replacements), and is always inventing something to occupy herself in lieu of living her dream of a “normal” life and having friends like other girls.

Trio lives in a small, ramshackle house on a large piece of scrubby but beautiful land too remote for neighbors. There’s no electricity and no phone. Occasional company is provided by George (J.K. Simmons), Charley’s best friend, who comes around despite the fact Charley won’t talk to him, and is charged to obtain an anti-depressant for Charley, which he never does.

An unexpected visitor arrives in the form of William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), a discombobulated IRS man assigned to audit the family, which hasn’t filed a tax return in seven years of making less than $5,000 per year. A film that, for a time, threatens to acquire a case of the cutes at this point assumes a sense of grace and purpose it never relinquishes. Due to a succession of circumstances — a dead car, a debilitating fever, a quickly aborning love for Arlene, and an effect on Charley that inspires him to start speaking again — William forgets all about his IRS job and stays on indefinitely.

Outsider’s presence alters the balance within the family and works to bring everyone out of his or her shell. Without ever allowing as to what drove him to the depths of despondency (although we can suspect it was just intolerable disappointment with life), Charley indulges in long nocturnal gab fests and shakes his head in wonderment over how he became “a damn crying machine.” He also comes alive again sensually to Arlene, while Bo becomes more audacious in her gestures of emotion and desire for independence.

Most surprisingly, the freedom and mind-opening qualities of a life unconstrained result in what Bo calls a “short but brilliant career” for William as a painter, a development that has long-term implications for his friends even after he’s gone from the scene.

Ackermann’s material and Scott’s approach to it are squarely traditional, in that primacy is accorded to such elemental values as character, emotional truth, structure and dramatic balance. What makes the film’s dedication to these bedrocks of storytelling rewarding rather than tiresomely old-fashioned is its stylistic subtlety; whereas in other hands the characters could have come off as nutty, their actions eccentric and the themes noble and edifying, Scott, as is his wont as an actor, underplays to rich effect.

Unlike so many filmmakers today, he’s in no hurry to ingratiate himself or win the audience over. As a result, the film grows slowly and naturally, which allows its eventual zigzags and twists to feel like the unexpected bends in a river rather than the manipulations of a puppeteer.

Equal credit goes to the superb thesps, who share screen time more or less equally and bring their characters fully to life. Not entirely recognizable at first with her long hair and somewhat darkened skin (Arlene is one-quarter Hopi Indian), Allen beautifully essays a borderline space cadet who still manages to keep her feet and heart solidly Earthbound. An actor of Elliott’s core strength proves valuable in making palatable his character of a grievously wounded man who’s way off the deep end when first met. De Angelis is spontaneous and ingratiating as the best advertisement for home schooling the screen has seen in ages, while True-Frost grows into his role just as the character eventually finds his center.

Juan Ruiz Anchia’s lensing makes unselfconscious use of the strikingly rugged northern New Mexico setting (pic was shot near the D.H. Lawrence ranch north of Taos). Other craft contributions are modest but apt.

Off the Map

Production

A Holedigger Films presentation. Produced by Campbell Scott, George VanBuskirk. Executive producers, Martin Garvey, David Newman, Jonathan Filley. Directed by Campbell Scott. Screenplay, Joan Ackermann, based on her play.

Crew

Camera (color), Juan Ruiz Anchia; editor, Andy Keir; music, Gary DeMichele; music supervisor, Marc Campbell; production designer, Chris Shriver; set decorator, David Schlesinger; costume designer, Amy Westcott; sound, Billy Sarokin; supervising sound editors, Ira Spiegel, Marlena Grzaslewicz; assistant director, Cas Donovan; casting, Laylee Olfat. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2003. Running time: 108 MIN. (without end credits).

With

Arlene - Joan Allen Bo - Valentina de Angelis Charley - Sam Elliott George - J.K. Simmons William Gibbs - Jim True-Frost Adult Bo - Amy Brenneman
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