Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
To put it plainly, most of Off the Black is simply terrible. Its summary: Gruff, lonely man getting on in years befriends a naive teenage boy, life lessons are learned, and the ending is sad yet hopeful. Think you’ve seen it before? You have, in versions ad nauseam. Off the Black even shares a cast member with one of them. Nick Nolte, whose character, Ray Cook, is based on the actor’s mug shot, also portrayed an unlikely sage to a youngster in this year’s Peaceful Warrior. Here Nolte plays a 57-year-old junkyard worker and high-school-baseball umpire. Ray drinks all the time, is barely intelligible, and doesn’t really know anybody but is often recognized, usually with venom, as the local ump. When he calls a ball on pitcher Dave (Trevor Morgan), a decision that costs his team a championship, Dave and a few teammates vandalize Ray’s yard. Dave gets caught, Ray makes him take responsibility and clean it up—and the mentor–mentee relationship begins. Writer-director James Ponsoldt litters his film with weird lines (“You look like a worm set up shop in your colon”) and scenes of clichéd preciousness (the camera zooms out in steps as Ray sits alone in a stadium, Teacher and Student take pulls on a bottle as they discuss Life). Naturally, Dave has family issues, with a depressed dad (Timothy Hutton) and a little sister who’s annoying but whom he seems to like (Sonia Feigelson, who “acts” by working her big, brown eyes). Ponsoldt’s twist is having Ray ask Dave to accompany him to his 40th high-school reunion and pose as his son. It’s slightly ridiculous—wait ’til you see how Dad reacts to his teenage boy dressing to the nines to go out with a much older, unfamiliar man—but from the reunion on, Off the Black ups its game. While interacting with others, these characters finally start to feel human, and their bond no longer seems forced. Morgan believably conveys the awkwardness of being on the cusp of adulthood, as well as how irritating mouth-breathing kids can be. (Talent or merely good timing?) And though moviegoers may forever think Nolte’s as pathetic as Ray because of that infamous DUI pic, the reality is one can’t just stumble onto a set and evoke soul-crushing solitude and hopelessness, which the vet pulls out of his hat with impeccable timing. Ray confesses to Dave, “No, I’m not happy, but I wear it well.” Nolte does, too, but it’s because the chops are there.