Gulf War vets, teenage runaways, the mentally ill and the socially disenchanted make up the population of the Mesa, a 16-square-mile patch of New Mexico that provided brother-sister helmers Randy and Jeremy Stulberg fertile ground for their insightful study of an alternative American lifestyle, “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa.” Docu should do very well on the festival circuit and has enough cultish appeal to find a niche in the hearts of anarchists everywhere, especially those with access to public television.
The inhabitants of the Mesa, an undeveloped, virtually unreachable expanse of sand and scrub brush, have a system and a code that prevent their small civilization from collapsing into total chaos. “Don’t steal from your neighbor,” one Mesa-ite says. “Don’t shoot your neighbor.” Which doesn’t seem so remote a possibility, given the number of guns on display and the propensity the residents have for firing them.
But when a group of vegan Marxist teenagers, known as the Nowhere Kids, begin robbing homes on the Mesa, the small society has to deal with enforcing basic laws, and its options don’t include calling the police.
The Stulbergs, whose film’s stunning look is a combination of good cinematography and a majestic New Mexican landscape, achieved marvelous access to what has to be a very closed and insular community, given where and how the inhabitants choose to live. The various characters come to vivid life as crises large, small and unresolved are explored: Maine, a Gulf War vet, has cancer and refuses chemotherapy; Virginia, a 17-year-old runaway of questionable mental capacity, gets pregnant and decides to raise her child on the Mesa.
The Stulbergs tend toward visual sentimentality, with their gauzy super-impositions and sappy fades, but they never pretend that what they’re portraying is utopia. “Off the Grid” is about is a community that is more than a little in need of help, but has no inclination to ever ask for any.