Off the Black (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Off the Black trudges through painfully familiar material - the older man/younger boy pseudo father/son relationship - with little regard for the fact that any seasoned movie-goer will immediately sense where the film is headed. The story's lack of freshness is partially counterbalanced by solid acting and effective character development but, in the end, Off the Black fails to leave an impact. In fact, one could argue that the most interesting aspects of the movie are those relegated to half-developed subplots included to add color and variety.

Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan) is a high school baseball pitcher on the mound for the game of his young life. It's the bottom of the ninth in a playoff contest with the score tied. The bases are loaded and there's a three-ball count to the batter. Dave shakes off a sign before throwing the pitch. The umpire, Ray Cook (Nick Nolte), takes a long look at the location then, deciding it's just off the black, calls it a ball. The winning run is walked in and Dave's teammates are irate. In typical fashion, they elect not to blame the man who threw the pitch but the umpire who called it. Later that night, Dave and some friends pay a visit to Ray's house and embark upon a campaign of vandalism. They aren't quiet enough, however, and Ray catches them. Two get away, but Ray manhandles Dave into his house. Ultimately, he offers the boy a deal: spend his afternoons cleaning up the damage he and his friends did, and Ray won't call the cops. This opens the door to the two spending time together and growing closer. Since Ray's son is estranged and Dave's father (Timothy Hutton) is emotionally closed off from his children, each fills a void for the other.

The movie unfolds as one might expect. After initial sparring, there's a truce, then a gradual lowering of emotional barriers. Ray's past is revealed to Dave, but there's one thing the older man keeps hidden - he has a terminal disease. (This is told to us early in the proceedings.) The acting by Nick Nolte and Trevor Morgan is top notch, making the characters come alive even though the storyline remains drab. We recognize how things are going to develop between these two, but we care enough about Dave and Ray that we're interested to see it happen.

Off the Black introduces a pair of intriguing supporting characters: Dave's attention-starved sister, Ashley (Sonia Feigelson), and Ray's "friend," Debra (Rosemarie DeWitt). Neither is well developed but what we learn of them is enough to excite our curiosity. Debra in particular is an enigma. Is she Ray's lover? Is Ray the father of her baby? Is Ray, knowing he is dying, trying to play matchmaker between the high school boy and the older (twentysomething) Debra? Or is he establishing a "big sister" relationship? Off the Black bypasses these issues because first-time writer/director James Ponsoldt isn't interested in Debra as a character. She's a device to provide another facet to the Ray/Dave relationship. Likewise, we're presented with numerous clues about why Dave's mother abandoned her family, but substantive revelations are kept tantalizingly out of reach.

The interaction between Nolte and Morgan is effective enough that it's almost enough. Undoubtedly, it will be adequate for some viewers. In the end, Off the Black left me unaffected. I appreciate that Ponsoldt doesn't go for cheap tears through over-sentimentality, but his detached, low-key approach distances viewers from the characters. I watched the drama unfold from afar but was never involved on an emotional level. For a movie of this sort, which relies on forging a bond between the characters and the audience, this misstep is a difficult and frustrating obstacle.

Off the Black (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1