The gentle drama "Off the Black" takes its title from baseball jargon describing a pitch just off the plate, but despite its frame of reference, the movie is really about the complex relationships that plague fathers and sons. Nick Nolte stars as Ray Cook, a man in late middle age who has slid to the fringes of society, connected to others only through his work as a high school umpire, and even then it's from behind a mask.
A controversial call in a key game and an act of vandalism introduces Ray to Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan), a 17-year-old pitcher. The pair's uneasy relationship gradually grows to genuine affection and it's to the film's credit that whenever it veers toward schmaltz, writer-director James Ponsoldt guides it in a slightly different direction.
Dave's father (Timothy Hutton) is a veritable somnambulist, a wreck since his wife left two years earlier, and Ray's elderly father (Michael Higgins) suffers from Alzheimer's disease. A more conventional film would view Ray and Dave as men seeking surrogates, but "Off the Black" allows them a looser, less hierarchical bond. Though Ray bestows life lessons based on stories of obscure ballplayers, they're handled in an easygoing manner that's never heavy-handed.
Ponsoldt allows the story to progress unhurriedly as Dave begins to see Ray as a more interesting figure than the "whack job" he first encounters. Even though we've seen Nolte play this type of shambling curmudgeon before, he's seldom filled a character with such empathy. "Off the Black" is a modest, bittersweet character study that hits its mark.
MPAA rating: R for crude sexual remark. Run time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.