By Elias Savada.
Recruited out of high school, Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) is professional baseball’s latest pitching sensation, but, like the cracked face of his iPhone, his mental mechanics are off. A case of the yips is sending his tosses to the North Pole. Baseball may be his passion, but Noah Buschel’s The Phenom is all about his characters’ mind games, even if the symptoms are motor skill related.
Buschel’s other five features – which he also wrote – have appeared every so often since 2003, one year after he was ordained a Zen priest. They’re film festival darlings (and available, including this new one, on Amazon or streaming through its Prime section). His art house list of titles includes 2007’s Neal Cassady (with Tate Donovan and Amy Ryan); The Missing Person (2009), a modern-day piece of noir starring Michael Shannon as a boozy private eye; the offbeat agoraphobic comedy romance Sparrows Dance (2012); and the atmospheric pulp thriller Glass Chin, from two years ago, set in the noirish world of boxing.
Buschel does likes his entourage. He’s collaborated with cinematographer Ryan Samul on four of his films, and the film’s widescreen visuals looks fine without being remarkable. Within his more recent works, the director-writer has created an ensemble of featured actors with whom he likes to work, including John Ventimiglia, Marin Ireland, Emily Fleischer, Paul Adelstein (effective as Hopper’s thick-skinned manager/agent), and Yul Vazquez (likewise, as his high school coach). Buschel is heavy into character studies and pushes to peel away the pain of his protagonists, and his cast plays along.
Like Glass Chin, there are two strong performers butting heads against each other in The Phenom. Corey Stoll and Billy Crudup are replaced by Simmons (who played a closeted quarterback in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Ethan Hawke, portraying a tow-the-line son and his low-brow, highly-tattooed, PBR-guzzling criminal father. Hopper’s pitching (although there are less than a dozen tosses shown in the film) has been adversely affected by daddy issues. Aside from the brow-beating abuse lathered on Jr. by Sr. throughout the boy’s Port St. Lucie, Florida (but shot in Georgia) h.s. championship season, it seems dad’s “best advice” is offering his son what he believes are the latest in “undetectable steroids.”
Hawke’s character, with a flat-top haircut, is a polar opposite from the fair-skinned father he played in Boyhood (2014), although both dads ended up divorced. His contemptuous compassion in The Phenom is laced with anger, vitriol, and violence. Flat out, a bad influence.
When the son’s concentration starts to wander, the team sends him to a mental coach, Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a renowned psychologist with his own troubled baggage. He talks his way into the patient’s past, with Buschel implanting backstory via numerous flashbacks of Hooper’s senior year back home, where we find dad, mom (Alison Elliott), his coach (Yul Vasquez), valedictorian, Yale-bound, girlfriend Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), et al, offering one-on-ones about the baseballer’s fragile temperament.
I can’t say I fully accepted the 29-year-old Simmons as a teenager on the brink of stardom, but he gives a solid performance as a lost soul. And even though Hopper has a hard time communicating, the film is rather talky. Even at 90 minutes, the pace never approaches the right-hander’s 98-mph fast ball. And the camera often just sits there watching the banter.
And occasionally the plot strays into a what-the-heck? area, as when the rookie has a one-night stand turned into an embarrassing robbery. And there’s not much of a convincing ending that any crowd wants for its home team. As sports-centric films go, those folks looking for cheering crowds on a mild summer’s night won’t find much joy in The Phenom‘s mudville. It’s a slow walk around the bases.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).