Character-driven indie drama "Off the Black" director James Ponsoldt has extraordinary insight into hopelessness, despair and addiction. He also knows how to tell a story without pandering to American expectations of happy endings. But, amidst all of the darkness, there is warmth and humor in this first feature. Ponsoldt allows his characters their flaws, and doesn't rescue them or reject them for their weaknesses.
Nick Nolte achieves a tour de force performance as the pasty, corpulent car junkyard operator, 57 year-old Ray Cook, who umpires local high school baseball games. Ray makes a controversial call and Dave Tibbel – played skillfully by young up-and-comer Trevor Morgan - is the pitcher for the losing team. To retaliate, Dave and two friends vandalize Ray's yard with toilet paper, graffiti messages, and a broken car window. Ray startles from his drunken stupor where he fell asleep in front of the TV. He catches Dave who he threatens him into returning to clean up the mess. The two become tentative friends. When faced with the specter of showing up at his high school reunion alone, Ray blackmails Dave into attending it with him posing as his son.
Ray and Dave form a believable surrogate father-son bond, which fills a void for each of them. Dave lives at home with his sister and his emotionally dead father, played by Timothy Hutton -- who has been depressed since his wife left the family a few years before. We don't hear enough about why or how a mother could do this to her two children.
With his youthful and fresh good looks, Morgan is a stark contrast to the gravel-voiced, broken-down Nolte. Nolte's skill with pulling off humor is used well. There are a few poignant zingers in there too.
I was surprised when I interviewed "Off the Black" writer/director, James Ponsoldt, and learned he is in his 20's and wrote the screenplay when he was 23. When I asked how such a young guy could create Nolte's character, Ponsoldt said he learned a lot about human nature from his family. His mother has worked in hospice for thirty years; as a child, when he no longer saw clients around, it meant they had died. He has friends who have suffered from depression, which taught him that it could happen to anyone.
"Off the Black" has realistic characters, plumbs the depths of loneliness and despair, but has tenderness and wit that lifts it and infuses it with life. The film doesn't feel compelled to tie the story up with a nice bow. James Ponsoldt is a talented storyteller whose vibrant and memorable characters are deeply flawed but not judged. His story is about the universal theme of connection. Look for this director in the future.
For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield.
© 2006 - Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D - Air Date: 12/13/06
Off the Black
Written/directed by James Ponsoldt (first feature)