Off the Map
In the middle of Off the Map, Bo comes back from killing her mother’s special coyote and, stamping her foot, declares, "I’m going to school." This line might seem like a non-sequitur, but in truth this movie centers around her need to grow up, and grow away from her family.
When we first see Bo, we are impressed with her command of the adult world. She reads Forbes magazine, and she casually suggests to her parents that George, her godfather, is gay, using a mature euphemism ("light in the loafers"). We later find out that while she knows the language of the adult world, she doesn’t understand it. George, it turns out, is not gay. She may know how to get free merchandise with complaint letters and thinly veiled threats, but she asks strange questions, that even most adults don’t know, like how many letters and numbers there are in a checking account number. When George leaves, she explodes that he can’t because he’s her best friend, a truth that she knows is not normal for kids her age.
Bo is on the verge of adolescence, and her awareness that her life is not normal is becoming more acute. Charley’s depression can be seen as a both a reaction to Bo’s desire to grow up and grow apart as well as a reflection of her own feelings. As Bo successfully hides her anger (and, perhaps, depression) most of the time, it comes out in her father. When he locks himself in the outhouse, Bo’s mother, Arlene, suggests, in another apparent non-sequitur, that they could have another child, that Bo can’t stay young forever. The central conflict in the movie is between Charley’s unspoken desire for Bo to remain young and innocent and in his world, and Bo’s desire to grow, become an adult, and go into the normal world.
Her mother is caught in the middle. She doesn’t want to see her husband hurt, so she suppresses her knowledge that Bo is growing and needs more than they can give. Her reaction to Bo’s letter to the newspaper advice column, followed by her insistence she go to school is to offer her the most normal outing we see: go into town, have a picnic, and see a movie. (After they skin the bear, of course.)
And then there is the virile coyote – Bo’s growth also is about her going from her father’s tomboy to a woman. So it’s all about sex, too. It is no accident she encounters the coyote and kills it. It’s a fearful thing to run into for the first time, as we can all attest. So she strikes out and kills it (with arrows, which always symbolize sex), and then, filled with the energy, excitement, fear, and whatever other emotions adolescence and hormones bring, runs home and declares her independence. In many ways, we don’t need to see her later teen years, only the end result (the grown up Bo), as we have passed the crucial transition during the film.
Sex is present in many other ways, especially in William Gibbs’ drawings, but also in scenes that Bo witnesses (the first meeting between William and Arlene, for example). She is at an age where nudity is not ok anymore, and yet her parents work or walk around with no clothes.
Speaking of William Gibbs, his role in the film is harder to discern. To Bo he represents the outside world she longs for – indeed, even the two pillars of power in that world, the government and the world of finance as they come together in the IRS, William’s employer. With William’s arrival we see more clearly that her knowledge of the adult world is fractured and immature. She’s bizarrely fascinated with his briefcase, imagines he will take her with him as his secretary (she types out a list of possible titles for both of them), buys him an appointment book he doesn’t need (in a great irony, he fills it with drawings), and insists he put on his tie immediately after coming out of his fever. She even goes so far to change her name, leaving behind the tomboyish "Bo" for the feminine "Cecilia Rose." In the end, that great irony is that he is seduced and falls in love with the world she lives in, and for Bo this helps mitigate some of the pain involved with growing up, growing away her family, as she sees through his eyes the beauty and special qualities of the life she’s becoming ashamed of.
For Charley, William is the catalyst bringing him out of depression. Physically William provides Charley with medicine (which isn’t terrible effective as it makes him hyper and angry). Metaphorically there is more success. William heals Charley by reminding him (or perhaps showing him) how wonderful this place is, wonderful enough for William to give up the outside world for. Charley is not a failure, but a "genius."
The healing goes both ways. Just as George tells the psychiatrist about his childhood, William works through his youth with Charley (and Arlene), and is healed. His healing, in turn, provides Charley with a greater feeling of worth. And maybe even the another "child" to raise, the child Arlene mentioned. A child who has no desire to leave home.
But the crux of that matter is that if William can see the value of Charley’s way of life and leave the normal world behind for it, maybe Charley doesn’t have to worry about losing his daughter. She may choose to enter the rat race (which, it seems, she did), but she will never lose the lessons this strange existence have given her. She will not only carry it with her, but she may even choose to return to it, may even choose it over the world "on the map" as William has done.
William and Arlene’s relationship reinforces this idea of William as Arlene and Charley’s second child. William is attracted to Arlene with the same kind of love he grows to have for the natural world they live in, the same kind of love he grows to have for painting that world (and her). Their relationship seems sexual at first; after all Arlene is naked, transfixed, watching the virile coyote when they first meet. But significantly William doesn’t see the coyote. And there is never any sexual contact between them. What this love looks like is the love of a child (William is a newborn after his bout with fever) for his mother. William lost a biological mother, only to find a different kind of mother, one who becomes his muse. All of this reinforces the idea of William as Arlene and Charley’s second child, the adult child who returns to their world and validates their way of life.
As the conflict between Bo and her family and her changing self resolves, the boat appears. And what is a boat, but a vessel to journey in. Bo’s journey seems as strange and unlikely and out of place as the boat does in their yard. Plans are made to sail the boat, but we do not see it on the water, although, at the end of the movie, we do see everyone in it, going on their separate journeys, growing up. George grew up (and "got a life") by getting married and moving away from Charley and Arlene, who were somewhat of a crutch for him (we wonder if what the psychiatrist told him has anything to do with this). William grew up and found a new family to be part of, one that talks about tragedy. Bo is growing up, getting ready to leave for school and, eventunally, more. And Arlene and Charley are the parents to all of these children, pushing them out (George), taking them in (William) and letting them go (Bo).