[box cover]

A Map of the World

USA Home Entertainment

Starring Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore, and David Strathairn

Written by Peter Hedges and Polly Platt
Directed by Scott Elliott

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We all have bad days. Bad weeks? Definitely, and perhaps even a bad month every once in a while. But (thankfully) few of us have years as bad as the one Alice Goodwin endures in A Map of the World. A farm wife/elementary-school nurse, Alice is the central figure in director Scott Elliott's feature film debut, a wrenching story about friendship, marriage, parenthood, guilt, and forgiveness. Featuring an amazing lead performance by Sigourney Weaver and excellent supporting work from David Strathairn and Julianne Moore, A Map of the World is a compelling drama that's well worth watching, despite the fact that it came and went so quickly in theaters in early 2000.

Self-described outsiders living with their two young daughters in rural Racine, Wisc., Alice and Howard Goodwin (Weaver, Strathairn) are city folks who've decided to give the dairy farm life a try. Brash and straightforward, Alice stands out in her community. Some people, like her perfect-wife-and-mother neighbor Theresa (Moore), appreciate Alice's outspoken frankness, but others, including the mother of Robbie Mackessy, a bratty, sickly child Alice treats at the elementary school, have no use for her. Alice's home life is similarly chaotic; she loves her daughters and her husband, but Emma has uncontrollable tantrums, the house is a mess, and Howard is so absorbed in his cows — and dependent on Alice — that he doesn't notice things like a flaming oven burner.

Nevertheless, the Goodwins are doing okay. That is, they are until the day Theresa deposits her two daughters, Audrey and Lizzy, at Alice's for an afternoon of swimming. Alice leaves the four girls alone for just a moment, but it's long enough for toddler Lizzy to wander off and wind up floating face-down in the Goodwins' pond. Wracked with guilt, Alice is on track for a major meltdown. "I'm trying to have a complete nervous breakdown, and no one will let me do it in peace!" she bellows at one point. But the worst is yet to come — out of the blue, she's arrested on child-abuse charges brought by Robbie's mother, Carole (an underused Chloe Sevigny). Unable to post bail, Alice spends months in jail waiting for her trial and trying to come to terms with the events that have thrown her mind and her family into upheaval. Ultimately, the slate is more or less wiped clean, and Alice, Howard, their children, and even Theresa get a second chance.

All that melodrama about failure and redemption... kind of sounds like an Oprah book, doesn't it? Well, surprise, surprise — as it happens, A Map of the World is based on a novel by Jane Hamilton that graced the bestseller lists for months after receiving the talk show queen's nod of approval. Elliott, an experienced theater director, borrows from Hamilton's prose for Alice's voiceovers at the beginning and end of the film, bookending the movie nicely. "I used to think if you fell from grace, it was the result of one stupendous error," Alice observes before the opening credits begin. "But when the fall happens, it can happen anywhere, and so gradually you don't necessarily sense the motion." The viewer is prepared for the worst right off the bat, knowing that even the smallest decisions or actions could be what topples Alice.

And it's really those moments, not the big, earth-shattering events, that A Map of the World (the title refers to a drawing Alice made when she was a child sitting by her mother's sickbed) is all about. Alice's house is messy, so she needs an extra minute to find her bathing suit — a minute that could have been crucial in saving Lizzy's life. Caught off-guard by investigators, an hysterical Alice blurts out that she hurts everybody — a statement that, taken of out context, later comes back to haunt her during her trial. And Howard, a man who thought he'd find fulfillment milking cows in the country, dangles precariously near the end of his rope when he's forced to play Mr. Mom while Alice is in jail and lets a minute of exhaustion, desperation, and loneliness lead him to the edge of betraying her.

These are the kinds of complex characters actors dream of. So it's no surprise that Strathairn, Moore, and especially Weaver really sink their teeth into the roles. Critics showered the lanky Alien star with praise for her meaty turn in this drama when it debuted, and deservedly so — her Alice is a tortured, conflicted woman who'd give anything to have her life back to "normal" even though she knows things can never be normal again. Sure, Moore gets some tear-jerking scenes as Theresa, grieving the loss of her daughter and nobly standing by Alice's side when her friend is in trouble, but Weaver is the one who gets to tackle Alice's abrupt fall and gradual recovery. Loathing herself for failing Lizzy (and Theresa), Alice actually thinks she deserves to be behind bars — and worse. But after she begins to come to terms with her feelings, she finally realizes she can't change what's happened; all she can do is forgive herself and try to make a place in the world for herself and her family.

Elliott, putting his theater experience to good use, lets his actors take center stage; the everyday sets are so realistic that they fade into the background. And the rural Wisconsin location is pretty and bucolic, but never flashier than the emotions the characters have to deal with or the raw dialogue they exchange.

Fittingly perhaps, USA's DVD edition of A Map of the World doesn't have many bells and whistles. The crisp, clean anamorphic transfer offers lush colors and sun-bleached detail. Audio is in Dolby 2.0 Surround, and is perfectly adequate for a film that's more about dialogue than sonic effects. However, the only substantial extra — besides the theatrical trailer, scene selection, and standard biographies for Weaver, Moore, Strathairn, and Elliott — is a 13-minute behind-the-scenes featurette. Comprising clips from the movie and thoughtful interviews with Elliott and the principal cast, it's one of those rare supplemental documentaries that actually adds to the viewer's understanding of the film and its central characters, rather than playing like an extended preview/advertisement. (Spoiler alert: The short includes a clip of the movie's final scene, as well as other plot details, so it's best to watch it after the film.) A glossy four-page insert inside the front cover of the keep-case contains a scene index and adds a few notes about the production's background.

— Betsy Bozdech

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