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Sensual Decency: James Ponsoldt’s Off the Black

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Sensual Decency: James Ponsoldt’s <em>Off the Black</em>

Off the Black is exactly every movie you’ve ever seen about a desperate loser who gets somebody to help him pretend he’s not a loser at a high school or family reunion, Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, ’Nam vets’ regroup, Sexaholics Anonymous social, cuddle party, or funeral. But this flick works around every cliche almost entirely because of its playful, searching direction. In virtually every scene, debuting writer-director James Ponsoldt strives to tease and discombobulate with an offbeat, high-E.Q. flow of images. Watching Off the Black, I remembered a hushed moment in Citizen Ruth where Laura Dern peeks through one eye at a time, left then right, at her own toes. We see the perspective shift through her P.O.V., like one of those novelty hologram cards. It’s a joyous visual non sequitur that expresses a world view, takes us back to childhood, and blows a kiss at the miracle of vision itself. That little moment told me that Alexander Payne, Citizen Ruth’s director, had greatness in him and some surprises in store. A lot of moments in Off the Black promise that Ponsoldt’s sensitive way of seeing will turn up future treasures.

Nick Nolte plays Ray Cook, an alcoholic high school baseball umpire who persuades one of the pitchers, Dave Tibbel (Trevor Morgan), to pose as his son at Ray’s 40th high school reunion. Ray restrained himself from shooting or pressing charges against the kid after catching him toilet-papering his house and trashing his car (Dave’s payback for Ray’s deciding call on a close game). Of course, the father-son ruse develops into something real as they spend time fishing, drinking, and shooting the shit. Dave’s generic, obnoxious homeboys accuse him of having some kind of seedy gay-for-pay tryst going on with the lonely old man. Their suspicions point to Ponsoldt’s ingenious conceit: He shoots the whole Ray-Dave relationship like a love affair.

These two men awkwardly, delicately circle each other, their dance expressed in woozy, tentative camera movements; you can feel the love blossoming between them as each barrier to trust falls away. Ponsodlt handles every close relationship in the film in this peculiar way—like a courtship. It’s how Yasujirô Ozu worked in Late Spring. My initial impression of Ozu’s masterpiece was, “Everybody in this movie acts like they’re in love with each other, but aren’t familiar enough yet to come out and say it.” That’s how Off the Black plays. (Ponsoldt even throws in some Ozu-type pillow shots—meaningful cutaways to scenery and people.) Dave and his sister Ashley (Sonia Feigelson) have an even more strangely beautiful romance. Aside from the Wonder Twins and the Osmonds, it seems every brother and sister in American pop culture want to kill each other, but Dave and Ashley are considerate, attentive and shyly self-effacing together. A scene where she steals his heart by singing to him in a sun-kissed field feels so right and yet so wrong; maybe it’s the fact that this interlude all but begs to consummate with a deep kiss.

No, there is no sex between brother and sister, or teen and ump, nor is any such thing seriously implied. The sensuality I’m describing here is Ponsoldt’s clever way of saying, in images, that falling in love is not just for lovers. Chaste love can have the same weight and blood-rushing intensity as lust. Appropriately, then, the Moment of Truth between Ray and Dave is charged and heavy-hearted enough for ten Brief Encounters: After Dave has fulfilled his unwritten contract by attending the reunion as Ray’s model son, there’s no concrete reason for them to continue hanging out, so they have one last drink together. The father-son chemistry wants to explode into tearful confessions and backslapping hugs. Will they or won’t they? That’s when Ponsoldt springs a surprise that brings a whole other layer of complexity to the table. It’s a mature departure from formula that better suits Ponsoldt’s apparent ambitions than the lockstep plot preceding it.

Ponsoldt seems to be after similar unpredictability and micro-adjusted moods from his actors. Off the Black is well cast, even if Dave and Ashley seem too Connecticut upper-class suburban for their working class setting. Dave is so soft and spacey, Ray’s former classmates sound nuts when they gasp at the supposed father-son resemblance. Ray and Dave vibe pretty well, but Morgan is no Nolte. Nobody is. Only Nolte can do that Nolte thing, and Off the Black seems designed in part to provide a wide, clear space for the actor to go full Nolte. The man is one big, growling, lurching, furrowed brow. His performance seems to just pick up where Affliction left off. You can imagine Ray saying something like “I’m nothing anymore, honey,” with the same demoralized lilt Nolte put into that line in Affliction. In Off the Black, he’s older, fatter, drunker. He achieves here a feat last recorded in Ol’ Dirty Bastard albums: You can hear the gin sloshing around in his gullet as he gurgles out the words. The initial effect is, “Haha, fat, drunk Nolte pushing around a teenage wuss.” I imagined Gary Busey in a shot-for-shot remake, and the highlights playing in my head were just as entertaining as the exposition onscreen. Thing is, Ponsoldt refuses to play this loser cheap. The story might be bargain bin stuff, but the filmmaker’s desire to get as close as possible to the pain and yearnings of someone who has run out of options is heroic. Just as Charles Dutton and teleplay writer David Mills bravely stuck up for the most maligned, ridiculed character in black urban mythology, the crackhead, in the pilot for HBO’s The Corner, Ponsoldt takes generous measure of Ray’s humanity.

Timothy Hutton, who plays Dave’s father, also gets a warm hug from Ponsoldt’s lens and dialogue rhythms. The character is a failed photographer who has been drifting in his own world since Mom ran away from the family years ago. His kids are quietly, somewhat bitterly, raising themselves. When Hutton and Nolte meet, Ponsoldt confounds any expectation of some kind of deadbeat showdown. These guys are so lost in their own disappointments there’s no time for rivalry. Off the Black does at times threaten to shower these characters with more pity than understanding. But in a movie culture where even lovers usually bond over survival, revenge and bloodlust, Ponsoldt’s sensual appreciation of decency and affection dazzles like a special effect.

Steven Boone is a New York-basic critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.