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One life-changing summer in the desert

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Now and then, despite the blockbusters that thunder through the megaplexes and their accompanying bluster and ballyhoo, amid the hype and hypocrisy of the advertisers and reviewers (sometimes the same entities), a solid, modest, little motion picture threads its way through the thickets of hyperbole and navigates the rivers of gush to arrive at a theater near all of us.

            The belated appearance of Off the Map suggests that an independent low-budget film with the right connections, employing some well known people, can compare with such genuinely obscure but successful flicks as Clerks, Pi, and All the Real Girls. The film also demonstrates the value of entering a title in one or another of the now innumerable film festivals that adorn the public life of so many American communities.

            Off the Map traveled the festival circuit on its way to its local opening, including stops at Sundance and the High Falls Film Festival here in Rochester, building an audience, creating some valuable word-of-mouth publicity, and winning recognition from critics and judges. Students and fans of the cinema should feel fortunate that such a route exists for independent movies and that this community boasts an appropriate venue for such works.

            Directed by Campbell Scott, the movie features some established actors --- Amy Brenneman, Joan Allen, and Sam Elliott --- which indicates that the small independent picture these days rarely emerges from the basements and attics of diligent amateurs with indulgent parents or ingenious methods of scrounging money and equipment. In actuality Brenneman only appears, without speaking, at the beginning and end of the film; her real function consists of supplying a voiceover introduction and some intermittent narration.

            She recalls the events of a summer in her childhood, when at the age of 11 she lived through something of a family crisis that changed her life, along with the lives of her mother and father. Valentina de Angelis plays the young Bo Groden, who lives with her mother Arlene (Joan Allen) and her father Charley (Sam Elliott) in an isolated house in the desert in New Mexico, sometime in the 1970s. Her parents, hippies of a sort, without any visible means of support, grow their own food, scrounge the local dump for various materials, barter for needed items, and homeschool the smart, lively, inquisitive Bo.

            The chief problem for the family that particular summer is Charley's profound and inexplicable depression. Apparently formerly competent and cheerful, Charley now withdraws into near catatonia, interrupted by paroxysms of weeping, and neither his family nor his stolid and rather dim best friend, George (J.K. Simmons), can alleviate his suffering. In classic fashion, an intruder, an IRS agent named William (Jim True-Frost) enters their lives, initially to collect back taxes, but ultimately, beguiled by their relaxed and carefree mode of living, becoming something like a member of the family and a contributor to Charley's regeneration.

            Despite its attention to the surfaces of its subjects, especially the gorgeous vistas of deserts and mountains and rivers, and the everyday life of the family, the movie proceeds in the manner of a fairytale, a legend, a myth. Its eccentric characters and offbeat dialogue echo the quirky plotting, where often events simply happen without any particular explanation or causality. William first encounters Arlene working naked in her garden, like some modern Diana, bonding in some unutterable way with a coyote; his arrival somehow mystically coincides with the spirit of nature the animal represents, and his subsequent vision of the landscape inspires the art that will subsequently explain his presence in the family.

            The limited cast all behave in accordance with the tone and rhythms of the film, speaking their odd, often funny dialogue with the seriousness that comedy demands, sinking fully into the eccentricities of the characters. Although Joan Allen plays the central figure in the family, the person who holds everything together, the absolutely charming Valentina de Angelis steals every scene she occupies, playing the bright, precocious Bo to perfection, one of the great kids in contemporary film. Sam Elliott, who usually plays strong, silent Western heroes, here plays a weak, silent man of the West, who must be saved through the intervention of his daughter and the inspiration of (of all things) an IRS agent.

            Off the Map demonstrates not only the fact that independent film continues to thrive in America, but also that some Hollywood actors will participate in a decidedly non-Hollywood sort of production. The movie also shows the level of quality that an intelligent director, working with an excellent script, can achieve, even without the sort of wretched excess that the film industry almost requires these days.

            In its pleasing unity, its charming characters, its offbeat view of life, the movie constitutes a refreshing change from the usual thing, even something of a minor masterpiece.

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Off the Map (PG-13), starring Joan Allen, Valentina de Angelis, Sam Elliott, Jim True-Frost, J.D. Hawkins, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Skousen, Amy Brenneman; screenplay by Joan Ackerman; directed by Campbell Scott. Little Theatres

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