The Phenom is the baseball movie Robert Altman never made. In his deglamorized sports drama, writer/director Noah Buschel (Glass Chin) explores the emotional struggles of promising pitcher Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), who makes the leap from high school to the majors. Simmons appears in every scene, and he’s a wonder of tightly wound alertness as a gifted player who uses the controlled focus he employs on the mound to cope with pressures off the field.
Buschel bounces Hopper between three father figures: a psychologist (Paul Giamatti) trying to crack his defenses, the coach (Yul Vazquez) keeping him on track with calm discipline, and a bullying dad (Ethan Hawke) who demands that his son master the rigor and reliability he lacks. The Phenom unfolds as a series of quiet, incisive conversations that showcase subtle, insightful performances. Even Hawke’s blustering career criminal slides from braggadocio to awareness in a heartbeat.
Using a stylized naturalism, Buschel comments on the sports-industrial complex with a journalist wryly detailing her job’s absurdities and an agent swanning around in a top hat and tails. Cinematographer Ryan Samul’s masterful widescreen long shots reluctantly work their way to close-ups, the camera seeming to follow Hopper’s dictate that distance is vital to his competitive edge. The Phenom serves as an antidote to athlete hero worship, epitomized by the brainy girlfriend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) who informs Hopper he’s no gift to mankind. But this bitter pill also contains an abiding love for a game that prizes precision, concentration, and grace.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on June 24, 2016 by RLJ Entertainment
First published in The Village Voice, 2016.
The Phenom is available on Netflix