The promising rookie, the come from behind victory, the underdog beating the odds, the veteran making one last stand — baseball movies usually follow a familiar pattern, and generally speaking, the genre has largely drawn from this well. They are also pictures that usually have an extra coating of nostalgia for the country’s national pastime, a reverence for the sport that has passed afternoons and evenings for decades. However, “The Phenom” is not that movie. There is no wellspring of warmth or late inning heroics, and the climax is nearly anti-climatic. But few baseball or sports movies have captured with such intensity the fear a promising athlete with a world of expectation on his shoulders faces when doubt comes creeping into his psyche for the first time.
From the start, writer/director Noah Buschel makes it clear he will actively sidestep the expected tropes of these kind of movies. We’re introduced to Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) in the office of athletic psychologist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) after a particularly bad game in which he threw five wild pitches in one inning. The loss of control is uncharacteristic for the rising star, once the third ranked prospect in the country, and the first ranked pitcher. And there is immediate concern from the unseen managers and coaches, with Gibson quickly busted down to the minors, where he’s tasked with getting his focus back, with Dr. Mobley helping to find the root of his issues.
The answer isn’t far behind: Hopper Sr, an ex-con, and former player with promise himself, who threw it all away thanks to a toxic combination of bad decisions and worse behaviour. Played with ferocity by an inked up Ethan Hawke going full “Cape Fear,” he’s not unlike J.K. Simmons’ conductor in “Whiplash,” who believes greatness can be only be nurtured through punishment and abuse. However, there is nuance in Buschel’s screenplay that prevents the father/son relationship from simply taking an adversarial dynamic. In a sense, the pair are co-dependent: as much as he might not like the methods, Hopper’s success is due in part to the commitment to training and excellence instilled by his father; meanwhile, Sr. craves acknowledgement and recognition from his son for that very success, hoping that his tough love, will eventually lead to the kind authentic love they don’t have.
There is a richness of character here that belies the film’s trim eighty-six minute running time, which is anchored around the psych sessions, and bounces between flashbacks. Buschel’s economy of storytelling is staggering, and while it seems like a much longer screenplay and perhaps even film was sliced and trimmed, it’s precision work; to borrow a wheezy metaphor, not one pitch is wasted. It’s nearly a full third of the way through the film until Hopper Sr. arrives, fresh from jail, and by then we’ve learned just enough about his potential effect on his son’s life during his crucial senior year of high school. So when Hopper Jr. arrives at home to find his father sprawled on the sofa, ready to resume his role in his son’s life, it’s the tension leading to the inevitable explosion that creates the drama, not the action itself. Elsewhere, Buschel is clever in coalescing key moments. An absolutely breathtaking sequence, scored to Tchaikovksy’s “Pas De Deux,” gives us a taste of Hopper’s talents, as he stays zoned in on the game at hand, while his father is noisily arrested in the stands. With the use of split diopter, tinted frames, and iris in, the setpiece could seem unnecessarily showy or contrived, but as the song selection suggests this is really the centerpiece statement about these characters, this world, and their conflict. And Buschel’s command of all the techniques he uses to get this across is truly a marvel.
However, for all of Buschel’s careful consideration of each frame of the picture, not all of it comes together crisply. One sequence that unfolds during a minor league away game stopover at a motel, meant to highlight Hopper’s emotional fragility, doesn’t quite ring true, and his high school sweetheart romance with Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark) feels more inserted for narrative necessity than organically grown. But it’s only because the rest of the movie is so well-fitted, than these scenes appear like scuff marks on an otherwise clean set of cleats.
“The Phenom” will likely disappoint those looking for on field action, and a hero to root for who comes through in the clutch. But the picture’s strength is in its honesty. As the film winds down, it comes closest to what you might call a traditional showdown, and it’s here where Buschel cements his thesis, an argument that lingers long after the smash cut to credits: that thriving talent needs to constantly be tested, in this case harshly, and only in accepting that, can someone with prodigious gifts truly reach the heights of their field. It’s an uneasy notion, but not a surprising one in a film that itself refuses to settle for merely being standard. [B+]