||Occasionally a movie comes along that tells a familiar story, but does it well enough to merit a passing grade. That’s the case with “Off the Black,” a picture about a high school baseball pitcher who loses a game when the umpire calls his all-important last throw a ball instead of a strike despite the fact that it might have been just in the zone--an event that sets off a whole chain of consequences. James Ponsoldt’s debut film is a close call, too, but it winds up in the black, as it were.
Much of the reason for the picture’s modest success lies in its leads. Nick Nolte plays the umpire, Ray Cook, a grizzled, hoarse-voiced fellow who shambles about carrying a life’s worth of disappointments on his hunched shoulders. Looking a good deal like his notorious mug shot, Nolte abandons any matinee-idol pretensions in favor of a rambunctious character turn, and though there’s a certain vaudeville quality to his performance, it’s still continuously fun to observe, with a streak of the touching (just bordering on the maudlin) to add some depth.
But if Nolte’s cranky codger is a thespian hoot with a soft side, it would quickly become a tired act if he didn’t have someone good to play against. Fortunately, he does in young Trevor Morgan, who was impressive in “Mean Creek” and does pointed and poignant work here as well. Morgan plays that pitcher, Dave Tibbel, who’s unlucky not only in his game but in his home life, with a single father (Timothy Hutton) so devastated by the departure of his wife that he’s become virtually incapable of leaving the house and a younger sister (Sonia Feigelson) with whom he can do little but commiserate over their shared unhappiness. When Dave and a couple of pals decide to get back at Cook by vandalizing his house and car, Ray manages to catch him, but says he won’t report him to the cops if he’ll clean up the mess and pay for the damages--an offer Dave quickly accepts, even if he doesn’t move quite as fast as Cook might like.
But then Ray ups the ante. He offers to forgive Dave’s debt entirely if he’ll do him a favor--a prospect that might raise a red flag more than it’s allowed to do here. Instead it’s quickly revealed that what Cook has in mind is for Dave to accompany him to his fortieth high school reunion posing as his son, so that he can make a good impression on his old classmates. At first Dave refuses, but he comes around, and gradually the youngster and the old man become a sort of bickering odd couple as they share fishing trips, revealing talks and more than a few beers. The actual reunion allows Ray the opportunity to connect with some old pals and Dave the chance to learn something about his friend he hasn’t known.
There’s nothing strikingly original in the pairing of a youngster just learning to cope with life with an older world-weary fellow, and in how their unlikely friendship aids them both. But in this case the familiar scenario works, not only because Nolte and Morgan play off one another so well, but because their relationship is portrayed by Ponsoldt in terms which, though not exactly naturalistic, are relatively loose and unforced. (Compare the more artificial, tendentious mood of another recent vehicle in which Nolte interacted with a young man, “Peaceful Warrior.”) Ponsoldt’s picture is nicely nuanced in other ways, too. It avoids turning Cook’s health problems into a centerpiece of the plot. (One cringes to imagine scenes of Dave hovering around his hospital bed.) It treats Hutton’s character with restraint, making him a decent if incapable sort of guy, and depicts the connection between Dave and his sister with uncommon grace. And it brings in secondary characters, like Ray’s institutionalized father (Michael Higgins) nonchalantly rather than as revelatory elements in some didactic scheme.
One can criticize “Off the Black” for taking a leisurely approach to storytelling that sometimes seem too accommodating to the actors (especially Nolte), and for an ending which, while admirably free of schmaltz, is a mite abrupt. From a technical perspective, too, its virtues are relatively modest ones, with Tim Orr’s camerawork often seeming more utilitarian than imaginative. But by the end, despite the occasional raggedness, you’re likely to have come to feel for Ray and Dave--a testimony not only to the work of Ponsoldt in fashioning them on the page but to Nolte and Morgan in bringing them to life.