A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this often-uncomfortable indie drama revolves around a teen boy who hangs out with a dissolute, dying older man who becomes a questionable mentor-father figure (he turns the kid on to alcohol, etc.). The older man, Ray, spends his days smoking, drinking, and dealing with the negative consequences of his actions. Viewers who can look at Ray from a somewhat sophisticated perspective -- he doesn't get obsessed with bitter regrets or the obvious lessons of his bad choices -- won't notice (or miss) the absence of the expected preaching. But teens may not take away the same message. Be ready for frank locker-room language, as well as a false accusation of pedophilia.
What's the story?
Ray Cook (Nick Nolte) is a hard-drinking 57-year-old umpire in a youth baseball league who angers a group of players when he calls a strikeout against Dave (Trevor Morgan). That night, Dave and some pals vandalize Ray's house; Ray, half-soused and waving a gun, catches Dave and drags him inside. But once he calms down, the older man is surprisingly hospitable, and while Ray still expects Dave to pay for a car window he shattered, the two strike up a friendship. It's in Ray that Dave finds an adult who will take him fishing, talk about feelings and past histories (Ray flew missions during two tours of duty in Vietnam), and even introduce him to comradely beer drinking. But even Dave is shocked when Ray makes him an offer: He'll forget about the broken window if Dave will pretend to be Ray's son at the umpire's 40th high school reunion. Ray explains that he wants to look like a "winner" in front of these classmates that he hasn't seen since the 1960s, but he doesn't tell the boy the whole truth -- leaving out, for example, the grim health prognosis (possibly from Agent Orange) that he just got from his doctor.
Is it any good?
If you can imagine The Bad News Bears strictly pared down to the irascible, pickled, washed-up coach's relationship to one player, it might look something like this. Notoriously hard-living actor Nolte plays nicely off newcomer Morgan. Their banter sustains viewer interest despite an absence of baseball action, supporting characters who come and go arbitrarily, and a sort of question mark hanging over the whole production.
OFF THE BLACK takes its title from baseball slang meaning just outside the strike zone. In other words, a near miss -- kind of like the movie itself. Writer-director James Ponsoldt's wistful little drama doesn't quite manage to be convincing, but it might just inspire some useful conversations. Exactly what life lessons is Dave getting from Ray? Or is it Ray -- a victim of multiple bad choices in a tumultuous life -- who's getting a final-inning redemption via genuinely fatherly moments with a kid who needs some, even if they come from a badly flawed person? Maybe writer-director Ponsoldt is deciding not to preach the obvious, even if what results is kind of a moral muddle.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about how the media depicts father-son relationships. What kinds of emotions (or lack thereof) characterize the way dads and sons deal with each other in movies and on TV shows? How would you describe the two different types of fathers presented in this film? What lessons do you think Dave will learn from both of them, and how will those lessons affect him as he grows up?
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