James Ponsoldt’s debut film, Off the Black, came and went in 2006, and while not amazing, it’s certainly a solid effort with an unsurprisingly excellent Nick Nolte holding the entire piece together. Nolte plays an alcohol guzzling, gravelly-voiced, down and out auto junkyard operator named Ray who spends his spring and summer nights umpiring the local high school baseball games. When he makes a questionable call during a key game, the frustrated pitcher named Dave (affectingly played by Trevor Morgan) and his buddies vandalize Nolte’s house later that night. After catching Dave, Ray tells him that he’ll have to hang out with him a bit and clean his yard, and also attend his 60th high school reunion and pose as his son, so that he’s not embarrassed by the relatively unremarkable life that he’s led. There’s more, of course, but I don’t want to spoil all of the low-key bits and pieces that make this oddly compelling movie work.
There’s some unfinished plot business and some murky character beats, and maybe those were intentional decisions by Ponsoldt, who also wrote the screenplay; there’s a sense of awkwardness that permeates many scenes during Off the Black which might point to life’s many unpredictable qualities in general. But whatever its shortcomings might be, this is a small and unassuming picture, and one that clearly demonstrated a strong filmmaker working to find his voice. Ponsoldt’s striking follow ups, which include Smashed, The Spectacular Now, and The End of the Tour, are a serious trifecta of extreme-quality filmmaking, and his newest effort, the trippy-looking The Circle, with Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, and John Boyega, looks very different for this more reserved filmmaker.