Dir: Campbell Scott. US. 2003. 108mins.
World premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month, Off The Map feels like a magical realist novel: it is sweet, languorous and full of small, poignant pleasures. But Off The Map does not quite make it as a film. Whereas it might have worked as a leisurely read, it plays too long and whimsical on celluloid and ultimately makes too few concessions to contemporary movie-going conventions to break out beyond the festival circuit or spark the interest of international buyers hungry for something to stand out in a crowd.
That is not to say that Campbell Scott's second solo outing as director is not accomplished or well-intentioned: it is both. But like his first, Final, the power of the story is diluted by lack of discipline both in the screenplay and in the cutting room. The gentle peaks and dramas of the story are at sea in the rural ramble of it all and the characters are too placid to keep the atmosphere bristling with the sparkle a fable like this requires.
Scott dips his toe into the magical realist world of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel or Isabel Allende but never takes the plunge entirely, preferring realism to magic. His setting is the high desert of New Mexico, where Arlene and Charley Groden (Allen and Elliott) and their 11 year-old daughter Bo (de Angelis) live off the land, making less than $5,000 a year and, they think, not required to pay taxes.
The film takes the point of view of the precocious Bo, who longs for friends and community, especially since one summer her father has sunk into a deep, silent depression. She writes letters to newspapers, snack manufacturers and credit card companies, desperate to escape the family's isolation.
The drama of the film, if it could be called that, revolves around the arrival of the tax man William Gibbs (True-Frost), who immediately succumbs to a desert fever and on his awakening falls in love with Arlene. He abandons his job and takes up in a deserted RV on the Grodens' land, while Arlene remains committed to revitalising Charley. Amy Brenneman plays Bo as an adult who provides awkward framing for the film, as she recalls the great artist that Gibbs became while he lived alongside her parents.
Scott elicits warm performances from his actors - notably de Angelis as Bo and the wonderful Allen as Arlene - and there is a sweet melancholy to the situation which works well in parallel with the Brenneman sequences since the entire film is told in the memory of the adult Bo. It is a shame that a small film whose sole ambitions are to paint a wistful portrait of living outside the system is of such little value in today's brutal theatrical marketplace. Although she has three Oscar nominations to her name, Allen alone is not enough of a draw to bring this film onto the map.
Prod co/int'l sales: Holedigger Films
Exec prods: Martin Garvey, David Newman, Jonathan Filley
Prods: Campbell Scott, George VanBuskirk
Scr: Joan Ackermann
Cinematography: Juan Ruiz Anchia
Prod des: Chris Shriver
Ed: Andy Keir
Music: Gary DeMichele
Main cast: Joan Allen, Valentina de Angelis, Sam Elliott, JK Simmons, Jim True-Frost, Amy Brenneman