Sometimes it's good to be reminded that American filmmakers are still capable of making a well-written, unassuming drama in this current climate of computer-generated bombast and movies with the numeral three in their titles. First-time writer/director James Ponsoldt probably doesn't have a single special effects shot in Off the Black, but his tender and sometimes tough little film has more heart to it than all the pirate, ogre, and superhero movies combined.
Nick Nolte is Ray Cook, a small-town baseball umpire who calls high school games. A salty, broken-down sort, he's impervious to the slings and arrows of the angry parents who don't like how he does business, though even he sees that his most recent job could bring him trouble. The home team lost its shot at going to State when they rather pathetically gave up the winning point on a walk. Angry at their failure and looking for someone to blame, three of the boys vandalize Ray's house. One of them gets caught. Dave (Trevor Morgan, Mean Creek) was the pitcher who lost the game, and Ray decides to give him a break. Rather than call the cops, he'll let Dave off the hook if the kid cleans up the mess.
Surprising no one, I'm sure, the old man and the young boy become friends. Dave's own father, played with a mumbling gentility by Timothy Hutton, has been living in a stupor since his wife left him two years ago. Without really trying, Ray starts to fill in some of the gaps in the boy's manly education, taking Dave fishing and counseling him about the perils of a self-absorbed life. Ray is a lonely sod himself. He drinks too much and is slowly dying, his body completely falling apart. He ends up having a hidden motive for keeping Dave around: he has his 40th high school reunion coming up, and he'd like the boy to go along with him and pretend to be his son. It's the first, and likely last, time he'll be attending one of the reunions, and he doesn't want his former classmates thinking his life is a waste.
Only, the explanation for why Ray wants Dave to tag along isn't that simple. Where Ponsoldt proves himself to be most adept is in knowing exactly how long to withhold his information. Far too many filmmakers would be compelled to lay out all of their cards right from the beginning. They seem to fear audiences not being 100% sure where the movie is going in the first five minutes of a picture. Ponsoldt constructs his script like a real friendship. We learn about Ray and Dave as they learn about each other, in a natural progression that also provides for dramatic effect. This means that emotional revelations have some genuine meaning, and they aren't just dropped on us as "gotcha" moments.
If I have any criticism about Off the Black, it's that Trevor Morgan's performance is a little lacking. His take on Dave is kind of hollow. Though the character is still learning about life and has a lot of empty spaces to fill, that's not all that Dave is about. He's already a pretty solid kid, and Morgan misses the moments of strength Dave is supposed to show. Thankfully, Nick Nolte's presence is more than enough to carry us across the threshold. While I'm sure there are plenty of jokes to be made about how much Ray may correspond to the actor's off-camera persona, I've never bought into the whole "he's just playing himself" critical tactic. You try standing in front of a camera and reciting lines someone has given you and look like yourself doing it.
Nolte lumbers through Off the Black, his voice scratchy and thin. He looks like a total wreck, but that's good, because Ray is a total wreck. Nolte appears to be completely inside this character--the distraction, the beer-inspired humor, and the brief, fleeting clarity. Ray's attention to baseball is precise. It's the one dependable thing in his life. It's how he communicates with his own father, and also his first link to Dave. Any wisdom the old man has to impart, it usually comes inside a baseball parable.
Off the Black is a sneaky little beast. What sounds cliché at first ends up being totally winning. James Ponsoldt never stops playing it smart, and never underestimates his audience. Even the ending knows when to play it close to the vest. No grand epiphany solves everyone's problems, and yet there is a resolution. We don't need it all tied up for us to know where these characters are going. Instead, Ponsoldt gives them, and us, a push in the right direction, having faith that we'll all figure it out.
Even if Off the Black isn't a big studio picture, THINKFilm has treated it like one. The widescreen transfer (2:35:1) is excellent, with only some of the outdoor night shots maybe being a little less than perfect (there is some haze, but that could also just be how it's shot).
The 5.1 Dolby surround mix is also very good. There aren't a lot of complicated audio effects in Off the Black, but what little there is--such as when a character onscreen hears off-screen action--puts the 5.1 technology to full use. There is also a 2.0 Mix, as well as a Spanish subtitle option and closed captioning.
James Ponsoldt recorded a feature commentary for his film debut. He's enthusiastic about the process and sharing it. His topics include the mechanics of putting the feature together, his intentions with his choices, and various on-the-set anecdotes. The stories about Nolte are a particular highlight.
A twenty-two minute making-of documentary eschews the standard studio fluff piece for something a little more loose, in tune with the indie spirit of the production.
The original theatrical trailer for Off the Black is included, as are several others for THINKFilm DVDs.
Off the Black, the inaugural effort of writer/director James Ponsoldt, on the surface appears to be a rather standard story of an old man becoming a parental surrogate for a younger man. The smart script and controlled direction, however, gives the film a powerful emotional resonance. Though the young lead is a bit wishy washy, Nick Nolte carries the kid on his rather immense acting shoulders, giving one of those late-in-life performances I'm sure most actors dream about. Recommended, because an actual film about actual humans is never a bad thing these days.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.