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I attended the East Coast Premiere of "Off the Black" at the Woodstock Film Festival. Having greatly anticipating seeing this film since I'd first heard about it over a year ago, and knowing a bit about the story as well as the cast and crew, my expectations were admittedly a bit higher than usual. Yet I tried to put away any preconceived notions I'd developed over time. I walked in with a clean slate. And not only was I not disappointed, but I was actually somewhat shocked. The experience of seeing "Off the Black" did what very few films have done this year; it left me with a tear in my eye and a smile on my face. I sat through over 30 films in Toronto waiting for that happen, and it did, just once. This was my first film here at Woodstock and it got me good.
Within seconds, literally, we are introduced to young Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan). He's standing on the pitcher's mound, sweat beaded on his brow, studying the catcher's signals. His face completely fills the screen, as if the director is saying, "here you go. If you don't like what you see, this will be tough for you. If you do, sit back and watch the story develop." The story is that of a relationship between Dave and someone else, of course. But that someone is no blonde bombshell or voluptuous vixen. The other half of that relationship is Ray Cook (Nick Nolte), the ump standing behind home plate. But this is not "Brokeback Baseball," no, although surely that may enter your mind. It's something else. It's something rarely explored in American cinema, and it's bold and daring. It's a love story -- a good old-fashioned romance between two individuals who just happen to be male, and it's totally platonic. "Is this possible?" you may ask. It sure is, and "Off the Black" will prove it to you.
This film is made with passion and care. The soft, natural lighting of the interiors allows the full mystery of the characters to flourish. Single point lighting allows interplay of light and shadow which echoes the bright and dark sides of Dave and Ray, as well as the family members who surround them. Dave's father Tom (Timothy Hutton), withdrawn and distant. Sister Ashley (Sonia Feigelson), on the cusp of adulthood, gawky and afraid. All have secrets to tell, but don't, or won't, or can't. Cinematographer Tim Orr manages to find beauty in every little thing -- contrails, dripping gutters, siding and eaves and gently sloping roofs. And the countryside -- oh my. The lush scenery of the Catskills is indescribable. As Ponsoldt pointed out in the Q&A after the screening, the setting is supposed to be his Georgia home. But it could be anywhere where sea and sky and small towns predominate. Some of the shots are literally breathtaking. I found myself gasping several times. But what tugged at my heart even more was the sparse, almost homespun soundtrack. Punctuated by the occasional train whistle in the distance, the music never distracted, never shouted, "this is important." The contrast between the beauty of the setting and the ugliness of the fractured individuals who populate it is stark. It is on this canvas that writer/director James Ponsoldt, in his first feature, crafts a work of art that is simply one of the most poignant love stories imaginable. Those who've read my comments before know that I dislike traditional reviews because they invariably give too much away. It's easy to find a synopsis of the film so I won't do that here. But in many love stories, the protagonists meet, get tangled in tension and deception, and finally fall in love. Occasionally that's followed by breakup and tragedy. Those aren't my words -- they are those of Ponsoldt in the Q&A after the film, who said that he actually wrote the film as a romantic love story. It just happened to be played by two male actors and is platonic.
To be honest, the film can be hard to watch at times. Nolte's portrayal of the seldom sober Ray is unsettling and painful, like a bad toothache that you can't wait to be pulled. Morgan's sensitive, vulnerable, sad-eyed Dave is like a puppy cowering beneath Ray's rolled up newspaper. But the bravado falls away on Ray's part, the sarcastic self-confidence and humor emerges from Dave, and the boy who needs a father draws closer to the man who needs a son. Finally, what makes this film so joyful to watch is the interplay between the two. It is all so natural that it seemed unscripted. As it turned out, much of it was. In reply to my question during the Q&A regarding how much was improvised, Ponsoldt not so surprisingly admitted that he gave free reign to Nolte and Morgan quite often, and some of the best lines in the film were theirs and theirs alone. And only the best directors are willing to step back and let that happen. And only the best actors can pull it off. Most will not be surprised at Nolte's performance -- he is, after all, a veteran if there ever was one. But "Off the Black" could be the vehicle which puts Trevor Morgan on filmgoers' radar, if it's not already. I'd seen his work before (He was Ponsoldt's first choice, largely based on his performance in the indie classic "Mean Creek"), but he carries this film so confidently and easily that I left the theater shaking my head in wonderment. And a tear in my eye and a smile on my face. "Off the Black" will do that to you.
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