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Off the Black Reviews

Writer-director James Ponsoldt's first feature is a small, modest movie structured around a fairly simple situation that leaves plenty of room for some fine performances. Alcoholic, 57-year-old Ray Cook (Nick Nolte) makes his living at a suburban junkyard, but he lives for the time he spends as an umpire for local high-school teams. After making a controversial call in the final inning of a local game — Roy thought high-school pitcher Dave Tibbel's (Trevor Morgan) throw was just enough "off the black" to count as a third strike — Ray returns home to a beer-swilling bulldog and a house plastered with Post-It notes reminding him to watch less TV and stick to a three-brew limit. He wakes up to see three kids vandalizing his yard with toilet paper and spray paint. Even drunk, Ray is quick enough to collar one, and his captive turns out to be none other than Tibbel: Angry over Ray's questionable call, he allowed himself to be talked into retaliation. Rather than call the cops, Ray gives Dave the opportunity to redeem himself by cleaning up the mess. When Dave admits that he'll never be able to swing the $200 it'll take to repair Ray's smashed-in car window, Ray comes up with a compromise: He'll waive the cost if Dave accompanies him to his 40th high-school reunion and pretend to be his son — Ray doesn't want his former classmates to think his life has been one long, downward slide into alcoholism and loneliness. Dave is reluctant to get pulled further into Ray's sad life, but soon realizes he likes the old coot, and the afternoons he spends cleaning Ray's yard help offset the emptiness of his own house. While close to his kid sister (Sonia Feigelson), Dave misses their mother, who left two years earlier and blames his photographer father (Timothy Hutton), who subsequently retreated so far into his own depressive world that he might as well have left, too. The story puts an interesting twist on a vintage screwball trope that still crops up in movies as diverse as PRETTY AS A PICTURE, THE WEDDING DATE and BUFFALO '66: Someone convinces an attractive stranger to pose as his/her significant other for an upcoming event then falls for him/her for real. But instead of wacky hijinks, Ray and Dave must negotiate the emotional minefield of unfulfilled father-son relationships. Hard living has battered Nolte's voice into a deep, gravelly growl, making him the perfect casting choice for Ray. Meanwhile, Morgan, kid star of THE GLASS HOUSE and MEAN CREEK, is maturing into teen-idol material (he now looks uncannily like a young Patrick Dempsey) with genuine star potential.