- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 21, 2006

The term “father figure” gets a beating, then a workout in the intriguing new drama “Off the Black.”

Nick Nolte, self-relegated to the indie world, gives a bruised performance as a loner trying to connect with a young athlete. The actor’s voice, never a dulcet instrument, is reduced to a broken glass growl now, but his face retains a hint of innocence turned dark by tragedy.

He’s ideal for Ray Cook, the film’s sour protagonist. Mr. Nolte’s Ray works in a junkyard during the day, squeezing in gigs as a high school umpire when time permits.

Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan), a high school pitcher, loses a big game as a result of one of Ray’s calls. He takes revenge by vandalizing Ray’s property but gets caught in the act.

Ray allows him to clean up the mess rather than face prosecution. It’s the start of an unusual friendship that builds in awkward, but believable, increments.

Midway through the expensive cleanup, Ray offers Dave a deal: If he attends Ray’s 40th high school reunion posing as Ray’s son, the debt will be paid in full.

The offer changes the dynamic of their bond, from pragmatic to personal.

It also indirectly sheds light on Dave’s own negligent father (Timothy Hutton), who hasn’t been the same since Dave’s mother left the family two years ago. The teen needs someone to share his feelings with, and the gruff umpire becomes an effective sounding board.

Telling a familiar tale without resorting to cliches, first time writer-director James Ponsoldt shows promise as an efficient visual storyteller. He drops us smack dab in Middle America with a few tranquil images, their serenity brushing up against Ray’s anguish.

He’s also confident enough in the material to never hurry the story. An early sequence makes clear Mr. Ponsoldt has a tragedy on his hands, but he wisely postpones the tears until much later.

“Off the Black” misses the plate more than once — a visit to Ray’s dementia-ridden father, for example, never pays off emotionally.

But as good as Mr. Nolte is, and it’s a hoot just watching him slurp up beer from a foaming bottle, young Mr. Morgan is nearly his equal in the less showy role of Dave, never letting his character devolve into a common brat.

No, “Off the Black” doesn’t leave us with any big life lessons. We’ll gladly take the uncommon bond between its protagonists as a consolation prize.

***

TITLE: “Off the Black”

RATING: R (Alcohol use and adult language)

CREDITS: Written and directed by James Ponsoldt. Cinematography by Tim Orr.

RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thinkfilmcompany.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide