Stepping up to bat for the first time, scribe-helmer James Ponsoldt hits a solid single with "Off the Black." Anchored by a terrific performance from Nick Nolte as a grizzled umpire who gets an unexpected second chance at fatherhood, this easygoing comedy-drama plays out slowly but assuredly, infusing a conventional story about a blossoming relationship with welcome reserves of honesty and humor. Modesty and familiarity of the material might stand in the way of a larger audience, but few who see it will leave wholly unaffected.
As was once stated in a memorable episode of "I Love Lucy," nobody loves the ump -- the ump in this case being gruff, hard-drinking Ray Cook (Nolte), who finds his house vandalized one night. Ray manages to collar one of the perps, high school baseball player Dave (Trevor Morgan, "Mean Creek"), whose team recently lost thanks to one of the umpire's close calls. A troubled but fundamentally decent kid, Dave starts coming by every afternoon to slowly clean up the damage.
Ray is obviously lonely -- he spends a lot of time shooting personal video diaries, talking mainly about baseball in words that ache with regret -- and it's revealed early on that he's also terminally ill. Dave is close to his younger sister (Sonia Feigelson), but their father (Timothy Hutton) has become distant and uncommunicative in the years since their mother abandoned them.
When Ray suddenly offers to erase the boy's debt if he will escort him to his 40th high school reunion pretending to be his son, Dave initially freaks out, then reluctantly agrees. What starts off as a business transaction ever so gradually becomes something more, with fishing trips, nights spent chatting on the porch, and (although one of them is underage) frequent guzzling of beer.
It's one of the strengths of Ponsoldt's fine script that neither Ray's cancer nor Dave's parent issues take center stage as they would in a less confident, more melodramatic piece of work. Nor is their surrogate father-son bond seriously meant to compete with Dave's relationship to his biological dad (who meets Ray only once, in a scene that's wisely played for laughs). Instead, pic offers a balanced, bittersweet picture of a symbiotic connection that leaves both better equipped to relate to those around them.
Reducing his voice to an emphysemic growl and frequently slurring his speech, Nolte is toweringly funny as a sad-sack curmudgeon who, for all his ills, never becomes pathetic. The vet thesp harmonizes beautifully with Morgan, who imbues Dave with a starry-eyed sadness and maturity beyond his years.
Ponsoldt rushes nothing, letting every interaction play itself out and allowing the precisely calibrated acting and dialogue to determine the pacing. Helmer's style is sometimes too generous, accommodating side characters -- including an attractive single mom (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Ray's own Alzheimer's-stricken father (Michael Higgins) -- who serve no obvious narrative function but add humanity and texture nonetheless.
Though it's grounded in the mundane, pic is beautifully lensed by Tim Orr ("Undertow"), who once again displays an appreciative eye for the beauty and tranquility of nature.
Camera (color, widescreen), Tim Orr; editor, Sabine Hoffman; music, Claire Campbell, Brian Petway, Alex Neville; production designer, Anthony Gasparro; art director, Chuck Renaud; set decorator, Sara Parks; costume designer, Caroline Duncan; sound (Dolby Digital), Noah Vivekanand Timan; stunt coordinator, Manny Siverio; associate producer, Matt Tromans; assistant director, Curtis A. Smith Jr.; casting, Avy Kaufman. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Spectrum), Jan. 25, 2006. Running time: 90 MIN.