A movie too subtle to appeal to large audiences, Off the Black is a crisp, emotionally challenging story about the tragic loss of loved ones and all the things people are afraid to say to each other. On top of that, it is also a superbly coordinated analysis of dysfunctional father-son relationships, and a compelling look at how the power of friendship can break enduring pain and generate new hope.
At first, we are introduced to Ray Cooke (Nick Nolte), an elderly high school umpire who spends most of his evenings watching old baseball games with his ugly mutt and a way too many beers. He lives in solitude, has barely any friends, and occasionally tape-records himself holding a monologue about fantastic home runs and unlucky pitches. His life takes a drastic turn when he confronts Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan), a local teenager who vandalizes his garden but fails to escape in time. In an unusual proposal to forget about the incident, Ray wants Dave to pose as his son at a 40-year high school reunion.
Written and directed with exceptional precision by James Ponsoldt, Off the Black offers a concise account of a complex friendship between a troubled drunkard who has quietly surrendered to his misery, and a young baseball player who is on the verge of falling into misfortune. Throughout the movie, the two individuals engage into perceptive conversations that will inspire them to help each other pull their life back on the right track. While the majority of the plot comprises of slow-moving dialogues, Ponsoldt nevertheless succeeds in crafting excellent character development. His lines are honest and at times packed with humor, and his characters never run the risk of drifting into the melodramatic.
Off the Black features stellar performances, led by a terrific Nick Nolte. His touching performance as growling alcoholic Ray Cooke once again proves he is a man of striking grandeur whenever he steps in front of the camera. Nolte is assisted by the 20-year-old Trevor Morgan, the star of the 2004 indie hit Mean Creek. Morgan remains remarkably stoic throughout the whole film, and interprets his character with exquisite finesse and authenticity. Both these actors are the perfect players for Ponsoldt’s sincere script, and gloriously manage to turn every scene into memorable moments.
Produced with a small budget, Off the Black attracted only few spectators during its release in limited theatres last year, but considering the film’s remarkable substance, I can only hope Ponsoldt’s superb effort will finally pay off in DVD sales. This is, after all, independent filmmaking at its best.
Off the Black is undoubtedly a splendid movie, but the special features on the DVD are less impressive. I perfectly understand that a limited budget doesn’t always allow for extravaganzas, but when you produce a film as subtle and passionate as this one, the disc could at least include a bunch of informative interviews or a picture gallery. Sadly, not this time.
The only valuable extra feature on the Off the Black DVD is an interesting 20-minute “Making of,” which introduces its viewers to various cast and crew members, and chronicles the setup of some of the film’s most crucial scenes. However, instead of following the conventions of your average look behind the scenes, this featurette lacks coordination and looks rather amateurish. However, the footage captures the light atmosphere on the set quite well, and shows that the filmmakers must have had delicious fun while shooting the movie. Also included are brief comments by location managers, costume designers and cinematographers, who all share their thoughts and feelings about the relationships between the actors and their characters.
Besides a short but quite compelling “Trailer Gallery,” which offers a look at recent Thinkfilm releases, the DVD also comprises an impressive feature-length commentary with James Ponsoldt. He keeps the discussion remarkably personal, shedding light on how the film came into being and explaining in what ways the story reflects his own childhood. He also pays tribute to his actors, talks about how the different locations help build the characters, and discusses the strong presence of baseball in Off the Black. The commentary is a lot more useful than the making of, and Ponsoldt shares a lot of information about setting up the most challenging scenes.
The limited content of the special features section is enjoyable enough to sit through, but the commentary is undoubtedly the must-see. Sadly enough, that’s all the Off the Black DVD has to offer in terms of bonus material. But then again, the finesse of the movie alone is worth the investment in the disc.