In the ’90s, Campbell Scott languished in maudlin romances like Dying Young and Cameron Crowe’s ill-conceived Singles, cast as the hunky sensitive type. But over the last few years, the actor has become a bit of an indie film maven. His involvement with movies like Roger Dodger, The Secret Lives Of Dentists, The Spanish Prisoner and Big Night suggested a passion for films with substance and craft. As the man behind the camera, Scott’s latest project, Off The Map, further bolsters his reputation as a cineast of intelligence and restraint.
Based on the play by Joan Ackermann (and adapted by the playwright for the screen), Off the Map is a loving character study of the Grodens, a family living off the grid in Taos, N.M., in the ’70s.
Told through the eyes of the precocious 12-year-old daughter Bo (Valentina de Angelis), the story recalls the summer of father Charley’s (Sam Elliot) inexplicable and crippling depression and the strange arrival of William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), an impossibly sad IRS agent who, through circumstances small and profound, comes to stay with the Grodens and never leaves. Joan Allen is wife Arlene, a pragmatic and sensually earthy woman who’s found the family’s good living in a hard land challenged by forces beyond her control.
Director Scott guides his exceptional cast through the script’s poetic flourishes and sometimes overly precious melodrama with a sure and steady hand. True-Frost is terrific as the melancholic outsider seduced by a land that is as beautiful as it is unforgiving. Allen turns in yet another in her long list of fine performances and de Angelis is a true find as the outrageously expressive Bo — a girl who longs for the green lawns and dependable bank accounts of modern suburbia.
It’s Elliot, however, who sets the bar with his remarkably vulnerable performance. As a strong man brought to endless tears, he haunts the screen with an inescapable sadness. Elliot is one of those great film “presences” who hasn’t had the opportunity to demonstrate the true depths of his talent. Here, he shines. For the first 30 minutes of the film he silently commands the screen with his impenetrable sorrow, never once relying on his trademark rough-hewn voice.
The film also boasts an unmistakable sense of place and timelessness. Intimate and other-worldly, Scott gorgeously frames his shots to capture the uniqueness of the land without relying on postcard-perfect visuals. Even the desert’s magnificent sunsets become integral to the story, beautifully understated yet unmistakably profound in their effect on the characters.
The film’s weaknesses, mostly with regard to the script, occasionally undermine the spell. Ackermann may not have been the best person to adapt her own work, as she relies far too much on an intrusive and overly poetic voice-over and bookends the film with unnecessary scenes featuring a grown-up Bo.
Still, Scott has created something special with this poignant and intimate film. Like the endless summer the Grodens live in, he’s found both transformation and clarity in a desert where the sands shift surprisingly beneath the characters’ feet.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills; 248-263-2111).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].