Off the Black, a coming of age story about a disheveled and disillusioned high school umpire who forms an unlikely friendship with a teenager who is coping with his own distant father, is in the long term a major home run.
Written and directed by James Ponsoldt whose credits include “Junebug and Hurricane” starring Janeane Garofalo, “Off the Black” leaves you both satisfied and wanting more. With Nick Nolte (“Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Hotel Rwanda”) as Ryan Cooke and Trevor Morgan (“The Sixth Sense,” “The Patriot”) as Dave Tibbel, the film starts off at a baseball game where Morgan is a pitcher. Cooke, the grumpy and disgruntled umpire, whose day job is of a auto junkyard operator, calls out Dave’s pitch. Seeking revenge for the umpire’s decision, Morgan and his friends vandalize Ran’s house. Cooke discovers them and all but Dave get away. When it is revealed that it was the pitcher from that afternoon’s game, Ryan is stunned. In exchange for not calling the police, Dave agrees to come by Ryan’s house in the morning to clean up. From this bewildered incident, the two form an endearing bond, as both struggle to come to terms with their lives. Dave with a distant father and a mother who left him behind, and Cooke with his alcoholism and nonexistent relationship with his son, to whom he occasionally sends embellished video tapes of his life.
Nolte’s raspy voice and “man’s man” demeanor carries him throughout the film and this role seems to fit him perfectly. Living alone with a bulldog he occasionally gives beer to, Ryan writes post-it notes to himself, including one that reads “three beer limit” posted over a refrigerator shelf full of alcohol. As Dave’s relationship with Ryan replaces the one he must have once had with his father, Ryan asks Dave to accompany him to his high school reunion as the last part of his debt for vandalizing his house. Though hesitant at first, Dave agrees.
The superb acting and cast, though supported by a well-written script, are not supported by it enough. Throughout the film as you get to know Ryan and his previous life, the distance between the audience and Dave gets wider. No explanation is given as to why his mother left the family two years ago and his crush on a quirky single mother is never fully developed enough to become anything meaningful in the movie. Timothy Hutton’s role as Dave’s dad is not as significant as it should be and does not do much for the viewer. On the other hand, this might have been the exact effect Ponsoldt was going for when he wrote the part.
Though “Off the Black” does not seem to have a soundtrack, appropriately placed small snippets of music are present in the film, reminiscent of “American Beauty.”
The film, from its dialogue to cinematography and plot, can be described as simple. The setting is a suburban town in upstate New York and the costume design to the houses make you feel like you can relate. This is not a fantasy-reality world in the least and that comes across well in the film’s simplicity.
In short, “Off the Black” makes you think about how relationships develop, burn and sizzle, but it does not make you think too much. Though Nolte and Morgan’s performances leave you praising this cast, details that would have helped propel the story along are missing and that just invites doubt as to how this movie holds up as a drama.
“Off the Black” is now in theatres.