New Mexico lives up to its billing as the Land of Enchantment in Off the Map, Campbell Scott's bleached-to-the-bone look at life amid the mountains, the desert and the hungry coyotes. Allowing her hair to reach past her shoulders for a change, Joan Allen plays Arlene, a woman so fiercely self-sufficient she must have to periodically remind herself that there are other people in the world. Among those people are her husband, Charley (Sam Elliott), and daughter, Bo (Valentina de Angelis). Together, these three are making a go of it on less than $5,000 a year, living off the land, without a phone or plumbing. It's 1974, a time when many who've tuned in and dropped out are dropping back in, but not these folks. They're diehards.
Then, as so often happens, fate intervenes. Charley, for reasons that are never explained, succumbs to a deep depression, spending almost the entire movie sitting in a chair, staring off into space. And our modern-day pioneers receive a visit from the IRS in the form of William Gibbs (Jim True-Frost), a newly hatched agent who responds to Arlene, Charley, Bo and the surrounding landscape as if they were peyote buttons. Not unlike ourselves, he's seduced by a life lived off the grid, despite problems ranging from wild bears to crocheted vests. Only Bo can't wait to escape this arid paradise. Her idea of fun is wandering the aisles at Kmart.
Based on a play by Joan Ackermann, Off the Map is perhaps too literary for its own good. An older Bo (Amy Brenneman), serving as narrator while looking back at her childhood, says her father's depression was "like some fumigator's mist, filling our lungs." Mightn't a fumigator's mist help lift a depression, debug the programming? Never mind. The movie gets so many things right that you don't mind the places where it goes wrong. Nevertheless, one of those places is Bo, who's so precociously cute you want to slap her. Luckily, de Angelis mixes some starch in with the sugar. We're made to realize that Bo, though desperate for company, is as self-sufficient as her mother.
I'm not exactly president of the Joan Allen Fan Club, but she's so effective here that I may have to consider running. Arlene is supposed to be an Earth Mother with a mystical connection to the land, and Allen conveys both the strength and the tenderness that come with that. Plus, she's beautiful, her eyes the color of a cloudless sky. Just as effective, in his largely nonverbal way, is Sam Elliott, who manages to find the humor that's often lurking in the depths of depression. Put on the shelf for two years, Off the Map almost wound up off the map itself. Instead, here it is, showing us how centered life can be at the margins, beckoning us to join those hungry coyotes.