Some actors, through sheer force of skill and good taste, become sort of a "seal of approval" for their films. Joan Allen, for example, simply does not show up in bad films. Like, ever. So when I see a new indie with her name on it, I know that something like "Off the Map" has earned the "Joan Allen signed on" stamp of quality, and I can then sit down, happy and confident that I'm about to see a pretty good movie.
Having said that, Off the Map kinda threw me for a loop. I think it's a very good movie, a non-traditional and fairly artsy-fartsy sort of experiment ... but I liked it all the same. The thing moves at a slow and unhurried pace, focusing on a small handful of main characters who act kind of weird and don't do anything all that exciting. But the movie sucked me in all the same, and it's actually pretty high on my "watch it again when you get a free night" list.
In the middle of a New Mexico desert, miles from anything resembling civilization, lives a small, poor, and admirably self-sufficient family unit: Arlene (Joan Allen), Charley (Sam Elliott), and their daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis) seem perfectly content to let the outside world simply rush on by. The slow-witted yet entirely-lovable family friend known as George (J.K. Simmons) will occasionally stop by, but with Charley neck-deep in a harrowing mid-life depression, he's not very good company for anyone.
Still, life goes on in this unique little household, at least until the arrival of an inexperienced tax auditor named William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost) stops by. Seems that this dirt-poor family has earned the wrath of the I.R.S., mainly because they haven't filed any tax returns in the past several years. William gets stung by a few hornets, contracts a rather nasty fever, is nursed back to healthy by Arlene, and basically becomes a member of the family.
Clearly we're talking about a movie in which character trumps plot with alarming consistency ... which is what makes this superlative cast so essential to the film's success. Ms. Allen, in my eyes, can simply do no wrong. If you don't believe she's one of the finest actresses working today, I suspect you might need to see some more of her work. Sam Elliott's portrayal of a man buried up to his eyeballs in melancholy is quite subtle and very effective, while Simmons and True-Frost offer some phenomenal supporting work.
As the precocious and startlingly intelligent young Bo, Vanessa de Angelis is an absolute revelation. Much of Off the Map relies directly upon this young actress' shoulders, and the gal creates a character who is endlessly appealing and entirely fascinating.
Written by Joan Ackermann (from her own stage play) and directed by actor/director Campbell Scott, Off the Map is a great little indie that couldn't possibly have a more appropriate title. Movies like this are ones you have to seek out and pay attention to, but those who appreciate thoughtful and unpredictable portraits of people best described as "off the beaten path" will almost certainly appreciate what's offered here.
Video: It's a plainly gorgeous Widescreen (1.85:1) Anamorphic transfer, especially when the cameras venture outside and treat you to the stunning New Mexico landscapes. Beautiful stuff.
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, which sounds pretty solid indeed. Optional subtitles are available in English.
Extras: There's a laid-back and thoughtful audio commentary with director Campbell Scott and screenwriter Joan Ackermann, which wavers between practical shooting information, mellow banter, and ruminations on some of the film's lofty subtextual offerings. If you enjoyed the film, and you still have a few hours to kill, odds are you'll dig what the commentary has to offer.
The 22-minute Anatomy of a Scene featurette offers a behind-the-scenes peek at the production, as well as a handful of interviews with Campbell Scott, Joan Allen, Jim True-Frost, Sam Elliott, Joan Ackermann, production designer Chris Shriver, editor Andy Keir, producer George Van Buskirk, and cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia. As usual, the Sundance Channel doles out the good stuff with this "Anatomy of a Scene" series.
Also from the Sundance Channel is a 3-minute featurette entitled Out There Now, which throws some attention towards Off the Map. It's not much more than a network time-filler EPK thingie, but it's a nice inclusion all the same.
Rounding out the supplements is a fistful of trailers for Look at Me, House of Flying Daggers, The Brooke Ellison Story, Whale Rider, Spellbound, Bobby Jones: Stroke of Genius, Rosenstrasse, Nobody Knows, and Dust to Glory.
Off the Map is an unassuming and fairly hypnotic little "people story." Here you'll be a fly on the wall during one offbeat family's more difficult summers together. Don't go in expecting your traditional A to B to C conflict / resolution narrative, and odds are you'll find a lot to like in this unique and quietly memorable multi-character study.