Thursday, December 07, 2006

Off the Black review

James Ponsoldt's debut feature Off the Black is a funny, unpredictable drama featuring perhaps one of the best performances of Nick Nolte's career.

When I first heard about this movie & saw its theatrical poster & trailer & its indiewood credentials (selected by Sundance 06, distributed by THINKFilm) I was not automatically seized with epic enthusiasm for the project. However, the fact that this movie was produced by a veteran indie producer's company (Scott Macaulay's Forensic Films) made me want to look deeper into it. Forensic has produced several very interesting films, including Raising Victor Vargas, Gummo & Clean. So off I went to a special screening in Washington, DC last Sunday to see what Off the Black was all about.

Here is the basic plot of the film: an aging, cranky, lonely auto junk yard worker/ part time high school baseball umpire (Nick Nolte) who drinks way too much & possibly is not in the best of health befriends a neglected teenager (Trevor Morgan) and pretends the teen is his son at his 40th high school reunion. Morgan's teenage character is living without his mother (she took off, the film does not explain the details) and with his unavailable & largely uninterested dad (he seems very depressed) and his younger sister. Morgan's character meets Nolte's character during a vandalism scene; the teen & a couple of his friends toilet paper & graffiti the umpire's house bacause they did not like an important call the umpire made, a call that made their team lose an important game. The umpire hears the noises in his yard, grabs a gun, & Morgan's character is caught red handed. In exchange for not turning the teen into the police or his father, Nolte's character demands that the teen clean up the mess that he & his friends made. During the teen's cleaning visits over the next couple of days, the two characters talk & get to know each other a little. While a friendship begins to develop, Nolte's character invites Morgan's character to come to his 40th high school reunion & pretend to be his son. Seems that would help make Nolte's character look like a winner in the eyes of his old high school buddies. This basic situation; the development of an unlikely friendship, offers many lighthearted moments and an excellent, at times Tom Waits like, performance by Nolte.

I was worried that this movie would turn out to be a Hallmarkish movie where PEOPLE LEARN SOMETHING. But one of the beautiful things about Off the Black is how it repeatedly makes sharp turns away from predictable, cliched developments. Ponsoldt takes his time telling the story but only reveals as much as he needs to and often in an indirect way, leaving space and time for the audience to fill in the details or at least wonder about the untold things; a welcome break from most movies that say & show too much. Also, there is much beauty and grace in the details: in shots of the small town where the story takes place, cosmically charged music (that's the feeling I got from the music, it is music that opens up the small town visions by linking them to sounds that feel like they are from far far away places, perhaps from even another dimension or another universe all together), and a camera that warmly lingers for a while longer than absolutely necessary on the minor characters. Off the Black tells its story through small moments. Even though the characters may not realize it at the times that we see them, those small moments may turn out to be epic events in the complete story of their lives.

The movie celebrates both the bleakness and the intimidating potential for change that ordinary existence can bring - but not with too much off-putting noise, but rather quietly. The many small beautiful moments in Off the Black , & Nolte's performance, is well worth the ticket price. And if those don't work for you, there is always the scene in the grandfather's hospital room - guaranteed to make most people laugh. Off the Black is highly recommended.

- Sujewa

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