Two pieces of “inside baseball”: the title of James Ponsoldt’s sturdy first feature, the comedy-drama “Off the Black,” refers to a pitch barely off home plate—a ball instead of a strike. And, anytime a movie reviewer opens a critique with “you’ve seen this before,” remember you’ve seen them saying that before, and that over-familiarity with form and storytelling devices and film history and seeing eight or ten movies a week means that you will see them saying that again and again, and again and again they will overlook the virtues of a movie like this. (Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt; only light-blinded movie crickets.) Nick Nolte invests himself fully, boozily (and in one bold scene, literally nakedly) into another valuable, leonine role, as Ray Cook, a high school baseball umpire in his sixties who gets a second chance at fatherhood with a symbolic son, 17-year-old pitcher Dave (Trevor Morgan). Their eccentric interplay after he calls a pitch that causes Dave’s hometown team to lose is carefully detailed, and the combination of anger and hope is compelling. (The culmination, where Ray convinces Dave to attend his fortieth high-school reunion in the guise of his son, works in wondrous ways.) Ponsoldt’s bittersweet layers of father-and-son conflict never stoop to melodrama; the confidence and richness of the story’s telling is matched by the beautiful cinematography by Tim Orr (“All the Real Girls,” “Raising Victor Vargas”). With Timothy Hutton, Sally Kirkland, Michael Higgins. 90m. (Ray Pride)
“Off the Black” opens Friday at Landmark Century.trevor
“Crickets” is intentional usage.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.