The Sundance-screened OFF THE BLACK marks the feature
film debut of writer-director James Ponsoldt and if there's a whiff
of autobiography about it, so much the better. The film is a modest
comedy/drama about what it means to be a parent and a child and
it is anchored by a strong performance by Nick Nolte.

 Nolte plays Ray Cook, a junkyard worker who moonlights as an
umpire. As the film opens, he is calling a game being pitched by
Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan) and Ray determines the ball was "off the
black" and therefore a ball, resulting in Dave's team losing the playoffs.
Many in the crowd took issue with the umpire's call, not the least
because Ray tends to drink too much. As payback, Dave and two
friends show up later that night to vandalize the ump's home, spewing
toilet paper and garbage in his front yard and breaking the window
of his car. Although he was sleeping off the effects of several beers,
Ray rallies enough to get a loaded gun and catch one of the vandals
-- Dave. He proposes a deal: Dave will clean up the mess and pay for
the car window and Ray won't report the matter to the police.

 It seems that Dave has some issues of his own. His mother
abandoned the family some two years earlier and Dave and his
younger sister (the appealing Sonia Feigelson) struggle to maintain
normalcy. Their somewhat eccentric father (Timothy Hutton) is remote
and uncommunicative and appears to be struggling to get through
each day, often avoiding his work as a photographer.

 The business transaction that Dave and Ray have concluded
eventually gives way to a different sort of bond and the gruff older
man and the teenager find some common ground. One day, Ray
offers a proposition: to wipe the slate clean, all Dave has to do is
accompany Ray to his 40th high school reunion and pretend to be
his son. Reluctantly, he agrees and the pair embark on the adventure
with some surprising results.

 Nolte is superb as the older man, struggling with the legacy
of Alzheimer's disease that has crippled his own father, his alcoholism,
and other ailments. He is matched scene for scene by Morgan, who
offers a strong performance. I can recall seeing this young man as
a child actor in a story arc on the medical drama ER. It's great to
see that he has made the transition from kid performer to young
adult and that he continues to display the kind of chops that should
serve him well in the future.

OFF THE BLACK is a small picture that might get lost amid
all the holiday hoopla and Oscar-bait fare that is clogging the
cineplexes. It's worth seeking out; those who do will find a sweet
but not saccharine story.

         Rating:                B
         MPAA Rating:        R for a crude sexual remark
         Running time:       92 mins.

                 Viewed at Magno Review Two
Off the Black
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.