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MOVIE REVIEW

'Off the Black' is on target

Nick Nolte plays an alcoholic high school baseball umpire in need of a family in 'Off the Black.' Nick Nolte plays an alcoholic high school baseball umpire in need of a family in "Off the Black."

"Off the Black" is a small, dry, emotionally loaded short story that has been carried to film like baked fish to a platter. Nick Nolte's character goes fishing in one scene, and he certainly drinks like one, but the allusive power of writer-director James Ponsoldt's debut is entirely a matter of scale. It's a lovely, ghostly work.

Nolte, looking more and more like an aging Zen bum, plays Ray Cook, a high school baseball umpire in upstate New York. A gifted athlete in his youth, Ray's now a wreck and a loner, the butt of parent anger and teenage pranks. One night a young pitcher named Dave (Trevor Morgan ) and his friends show up to vandalize Ray's house; the pitcher gets caught, the friends run away, and Ray forces the kid to clean the TP out of the trees and scrape away the graffiti.

An acquaintance grows, and then something like friendship, and by the time Ray asks Dave to pose as his son at a 40th high-school reunion, we're into weirder and more fertile territory. The boy has his own issues -- his mother has left and his father (Timothy Hutton ) has disappeared into himself -- and the fact that any adult is paying attention is a bonus. Mostly, though, Dave wants to solve the mystery of Ray Cook, and so do we.

It's a puzzle that resists solution, which is one of the real strengths of Ponsoldt's movie. Ray was in Vietnam but his scars run deeper than that. His Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Michael Higgins ) isn't talking, but the way he embraces Dave as a "grandson" without recognizing Ray says volumes.

Then the doubting teenager gets dragged to the reunion and encounters a wholly different man: a legend who disappeared into the sunset. Ray's classmates can't believe he's alive; an ex-girlfriend (Sally Kirkland ) leaps on him with sadness and delight. And there are further mysteries brought to the surface.

Morgan, as the kid, confirms the alert sensitivity he showed in "Mean Creek"; his job is to convince us Dave would continue to hang out with this crazy man after his friends have jumped the fence, and he does that. Nolte, by contrast, is quite wonderful in a role that's as difficult to summarize as it is compelling to watch.

Ray is a husk and a failure, a rambling alcoholic who ignores the Post-It notes in his fridge telling him to stop after the third beer. Somewhere within him is what he could have been, but we never learn where the moment of divergence was, or if there even was a moment -- a dropped pass, a pitch that shaded out of the strike zone. Ray offers himself to Dave as both a warning and an example: He has swung and consistently missed, but he never took his eye off the ball.

Ponsoldt has a firm grip on the movie's tone, which will probably be too indie-pokey for some. It works, though, and he avoids over-explaining. There's one early revelation about Ray that points "Off the Black" toward a melodrama that never arrives; there's a woman, too, a foxy single mom (Rosemarie DeWitt ) who could mean something to Dave but is mostly on hand as Ray's friend and fellow survivor. In all, this is a minor-key film about a minor-key life. It hints at enough chords of resolution, though, to seem satisfyingly major.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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