Off the Map
Eccentric and satisfying.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
When a married Arlene Groden (Joan Allen) tells her house guest, William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), that although it's nice he's expressed his love for her, it can be accounted for by the power of New Mexico, I knew I would express my love for this understated, eccentric, and satisfying film. While the two male heroes, Gibbs and Arlene's husband, Charley (Sam Elliott), are both depressed in the clinical sense, the film is not about depression but rather the forces of devotion and simplicity that keep these retro-hippies functioning in a remote world somewhere around Santa Fe, Taos, and El Paso.
Narrator Bo Groden (as adult, Amy Brenneman and as 12 year old, Valentina de Angelis) reminisces as an adult in voice-over about that 6 months of her father's immobilizing depression in the seventies and her own freedom in that pristine land where she could hunt, plink, and create without restriction. Bo is not a wild child but rather a home-schooled, precociously sensitive pre-teen who plans to leave here as soon as possible while she regularly receives gift packages from manufacturers whom she has threatened to sue over allegedly contaminated products. Her nonchalant but effective treatment of her father in his funks is one of the many acts that assure us she is quite capable of surviving anywhere. Director Campbell Scott's determination not to fill us with back stories on all the characters makes for an energetic exploration of the way they are at this time.
Gibbs, who came from the IRS to audit the family, stays 8 years, long enough to paint New Mexican landscapes of note. His friendship with Charley is true and good, despite that fact that Charley probably knows Gibbs loves Arlene. Charley asks him, "Ever been depressed?" William replies, "I've never not been." Out of his passion for the landscape come his sanity and a renewed interest in life that he seemed to have lost with the suicide of his mother, for which he feels responsible.
"I am a damn crying machine," Charley says. You may end up crying as well, but only because not enough movies like this are made where insights into humanity are as abundant as the Groden's garden and their four years' supply of homemade canned goods. Lafcadio Hearn could have been describing the Grodens when he said, "It is only in the home-relations that people are true enough to each other, --and show what human nature is, the beauty of it, the divinity of it."
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.