By Pamela Cole
Jan. 7, 2006 -- I'm a baseball fan. A big one. And I like
baseball movies. But don't expect another paean to the game such
as Bull Durham or Stealing Home in Off
the Black. James Ponsoldt has created the equivalent of
the male chick flick in this sensitive but not gushy film, his first
feature. Oh, there are plenty of references to baseball history
and the connection the game makes between father and son, but the
movie is more about loneliness and how it can kill you than our
Writer/director Ponsoldt (from Athens, Georgia) conceived the idea
for the film with his own father while watching an Atlanta Braves
exhibition game. They both have bit parts in the film. Watch for
Ponsoldt as the store clerk. (The film premiered at last year's
Sundance film festival, where Ponsoldt secured distribution from
Cook is an aging, alcoholic who has umpired little league and high
school games in his community for decades. Nick Nolte takes the
character and makes him complex and real at the same time. When
drunk (which is all of the time when he's not umpiring or working
his day job at the junkyard), Cook wanders around in the clothes
he slept in, his hair in all directions, spilling beer all over
himself. I wonder, can Nolte's voice get any deeper or gruffer?
David Tibbel is a high school pitcher, the local baseball star.
Good-looking and popular, Tibbel is struggling at home as he and
his younger sister hold together a family that splintered two years
earlier when his mother abruptly abandoned them. He still doesn't
know why, and when he asks his father (Timothy Hutton), still comatose
and withdrawn after the incident, his father refuses to talk about
After Tibbel loses a game based on a close call from Cook, he and
two high school buddies proceed to "roll" Cook's yard
in grand fashion, vandalizing his driveway and breaking a car window.
Cook, drunk on the sofa, awakens and rushes into the yard brandishing
a loaded pistol. He captures one assailant, who turns out to be
Tibbel. Thus begins the deal-making.
After receiving an invitation to his 40th High School Reunion,
Cook says to Tibbel, "I've got a proposition," in a way
that anyone might misconstrue. He wants the young pitcher to pose
as his son and attend the Reunion with him. Even though he's the
local "crazy old man," Cook is a nice guy and he cares
about appearances. He wants the yard cleaned up because it's an
"eyesore" for the neighbors. He stands in front of a mirror
and dresses in his umpire uniform. And he gives Tibbel a note that
says, "No hippie hair," when Tibbel agrees to go to the
Ponsoldt doesn't sidestep the issue of man-boy sexuality in the
film. But he doesn't indulge it, either. This isn't a movie about
molestation and he makes that clear in a way that makes one feel
"dirty" for even considering that it might be.
"I think in contemporary society now there's a certain cynicism
about relationships between men and boys, and it's sort of hard
nowadays to make a platonic love story between men, with all the
media coverage [of sexual abuse] between men and boys," Ponsoldt
In what seems an unlikely association, Tibbel and Cook become close.
It's to Ponsoldt's credit that he sets up the relationship in a
way that doesn't seem so unbelievable after all. For two years,
Tibbel has been without a mother, or a father. He yearns for his
absent father and is continually rejected when he tries to connect
with him. For 40 years, Cook has been without human companionship
at all. (He does have KellyDon, an adorable bulldog that drinks
beer with him.)
The movie is beautifully photographed by Tim Orr, with lots of
wonderful long shots that require no dialog to speak volumes. I
happen to like this kind of filmmaking, as opposed to the quick-cut,
hand-held shooting that is so fashionable right now. It also fits
the tone. Off the Black is a quiet, slow-paced film.
There are no angry emotional outbursts (although at least one might
be called for) and the pace, intentionally slow, begins to drag
after the midpoint (like so many features -- act two is a killer).
Trevor Morgan, who plays Tibbel, is the perfect "straight
man" for Cook's antics and one-liners. I think Ponsoldt got
this kid's reactions about 95% right. He never seemed to be acting.
While I love the long takes, in the second half, they really started
to drag the film down. I kept waiting for the Reunion. In the meantime
we watch the growing closeness between Tibbel and Cook, and the
growing distance between Tibbel and his own father. But the unnecessary
dialog begins to pile up and act three has way too many beats.
Overall, this is a pretty good first feature from Ponsoldt, who
learned his trade at Columbia film school. Nolte gives one of his
best performances ever, creating a wonderful character worth watching.
I'm sure Mr. Ponsoldt will get to make another film.
(Off the Black opens at Landmark Midtown in Atlanta
on Jan. 19.)