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Off the Black

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 national pastime.

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 THINKFilm.)

Ray 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 He still doesn't know why, and when he asks his father (Timothy Hutton), still comatose and withdrawn after the incident, his father refuses to talk about it.

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 Reunion.

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 told SSR last year.

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.)




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