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There’s a moment in The Phenom when a young man named Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), bestowed with extraordinary gifts, sits across the room from Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), and exposes what he’s learned about the therapist, breaking down a wall that he suspected was there. A vulnerability now in the open, the two share a confession about each other that links them in a profound way, allowing the troubled boy to reveal a deeply terrifying truth. It reminded me of the relationship between Will Hunting (Matt Damon) and Sean Maguire (Robin Williams) in Good Will Hunting, when Will finally lets go of his demons. Will and Hopper are connected in other similar ways as well, and while The Phenom doesn’t quite match the effectiveness of Good Will Hunting, it is still a powerfully touching, experimental film that has nothing to do with baseball, and everything to do with love. But not the love you think.
Sports have long been the backdrop for stories that have little to do with the sport they portray. They shine a light on a character with issues and give recognizable obstacles as metaphors for the audience to relate. With The Phenom, the sport is baseball and the obstacle is a father. It centers on the therapy sessions of a young pitcher who’s lost his touch, flashing back to the few years before that led to his breakdown.
It starts on the first day of a therapy session. Hopper was recently on national television, standing on the mound in the majors. He threw five wild pitches to wide public humiliation. Next, he’s in the minors, sitting in the office of a leading sports shrink. Mobley’s job is to get him ready to return to the big show. We spend most of the movie learning the reasons why the hugely popular and media-loving pitcher miffed the throws, learning that he was the #3 high school pitching prospect in the country. In flashbacks, he’s followed by scouts and is seen by his classmates as a kind of untouchable, all of them in the peripheral looking from a far with distant eyes. He has a girlfriend (Sophie Kennedy Clark), a socialist who isn’t with him for the money he is surely going to make, but he’s not knowledgable enough to understand most of what she says. She tries to explain that being the smartest student in the school is just as equally stressful as being a baseball player. He replies that it’s the dumbest thing she’s ever said. It hurts her. He can’t know what she is saying because all he understands is throwing a ball.
Since he was five-years-old, Hopper has been training to be the best pitcher in baseball. By ‘in training’, I mean tormented by his father Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), one of those hard-core fringe fathers who washed up before their prime and vicariously lives through their children, pushing them to be what they should have been. Hopper Sr. sees a bright future for his boy, but in order for him to get there, he must suffer through the worst of times to be as tough as he needs to be to face the enemy. That enemy is the batter in the box in the game and everyone else not part of the family out of the game. Hopper Sr. doesn’t take kindly to weakness. So numb to the abuse, when his father throws a full can of beer at his son’s head that draws blood, Hopper doesn’t even flinch. What Hopper Sr. is creating though is not what he expects.
Directed by Noah Buschel, The Phenom is an exquisitely made little film, a minimalist venture that is paced like a baseball game, with long stretches of play that pit Hopper on offense and defense. Simmons is well cast, playing the gangly, baby-faced Hopper with exactly the right amount of dullness a boy of his background would project. He has no sharp edges, worn down to a soft un-pliable shape of a boy. That he holds inside such ache is obvious, and all the more effective when it is revealed. Giamatti is good, too, though is basically an extended cameo, appearing in short sequences between flashbacks. Hawke is as good as ever, if not predictable, though that definitely changes by the end. Hawke does not typically play an imposing character, with many of his roles quite the opposite, but here he’s larger than life, even a little scary. It’s a very strong performance.
Bushel fiddles a bit with the tone and betrays our expectations by the final act, leaving to our imaginations an outcome that certainly doesn’t need to be included but feels a bit disappointing that it’s not. The female characters are mostly cardboard cutouts, with a doting mother (Alison Elliott) that is not given any greater role in her son’s upbringing other than suffering as the wife of the boy’s father. Clark is moslty wasted as Hopper’s girlfriend who gets a taste of what the worst in Hopper might be but then that is abandoned as quickly as it came. She also. There is a brief late night encounter with Louisa Krause, playing a lovely young woman at a swimming pool who seems to be a fan but is anything but. She accomplishes well what her character is designed for, though it’s a shame she disappears. In defense of all that, the film isn’t about them and in truth, their lack of involvement helps to solidify Hopper’s isolation.
The Phenom is less about finding solutions than exposing the problems. It creates a complex relationship between a boy and his father that might not feel satisfying but is affecting. Like The Great Santini, about a father who can’t make an emotional connection to his son, The Phenom is a challenging experience. As a baseball movie it steers clear of the sports film clichés, and in fact, spends rarely any time on the field. Even when it does, it is not about the mechanics but the pressures. This is a quiet film with a loud message.
Director: Noah Buschel
Writer: Noah Buschel
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Johnny Simmons, Louisa Krause, Sophie Kennedy Clark