With rural America figuring prominently in the background, Nolte plays a haggard and alcohol-favoring baseball umpire named Ray. As referee of the local high school games, Ray's calls against the hometown team make him an easy target for attack. The team pitcher David (Trevor Morgan), giving in to peer pressure by his teammates, ends up participating in a vandalism raid on Ray's house after a game that the team loses based on one of the umpire's close calls. Ray, however, catches David with toilet paper and spray paint in hand. Well aware of the teenager's overall good nature, Ray agrees to release the boy of any criminal charges or financial obligations on one condition: He wants David to go to his 40th high-school reunion with him and pose as his son. Although initially put off by Ray's request, David eventually warms up to the evidently lonely man, and the two unlikely buddies develop a deeper understanding of one another.
With all the trappings of a feel-good surrogate-father plotline in place, Ponsoldt's feature debut does well in steering clear of the usual conventions. Although revelations include a severed relationship between Ray and a long-gone son and David's strained dealings with his reticent father (Timothy Hutton), the pair never become the fulfillment of the lost father-son dynamic. Rather, they maintain a mutually eye-opening friendship that works precisely because of their seemingly opposed personalities.
As the troubled but kind-souled David, Morgan plays wonderfully against Nolte's humorous old grouch. It is their convincing onscreen camaraderie, combined with the film's touching but decidedly unsappy message, that imbue
Off the Black
with an affecting and memorable quality.
Cast: Nick Nolte, Trevor Morgan, Rosemarie DeWitt, Sonia Feigelson, Sally Kirkland and Timothy Hutton
Director/Screenwriter: James Ponsoldt
Producers: Scott Macauley and Robin O'Hara
Rating: R for a crude sexual remark
Running time: 90 min. Release date: December 8, 2006