STARRING: Johnny Simmons, Paul Giamatti, Ethan Hawke, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Marin Ireland, Yul Vazquez, Elizabeth Marvel, Louisa Krause, Alison Elliott and Paul Adelstein
A Major League rookie pitcher loses control over his pitching and is sent down to the minor leagues, where he begins sessions with an unorthodox sports psychologist. In the process, hidden conflicts with his overbearing father are brought to light.
The Phenom has us following Hopper Gibson, a young rookie that is a pitcher for a Major League Baseball team who we encounter as he’s going through a stage in a pitchers career known as the yips, which is the sudden inability to throw the baseball accurately. He’s sent to a sports pyshcologist known as Dr. Mobley, as we also go through flashbacks of Gibson’s earlier years in which he had to deal with an overbearing father.
The Phenom was a film I didn’t hear about until an official trailer was released mid-May and it immediately intrigued me with its subject matter and the main cast involved. The Phenom is essentially a drama film with a sports background in the vein of Moneyball. Sure we get to see rookie pitcher Hopper Gibson in action but it’s not the driving force as it primarily focuses on the psyche of an athlete and the immense pressure that he is put under not only by the team and the media, but his own personal demons as well.
The films key strength comes in the performances from its key figures. Johnny Simmons gives a really good understated performance as Hopper Gibson, a rather distant young man who has been drilled to the point that he’s in his own self-contained prison mentality. The person behind his mental barriers is his father, Hopper Sr., with Ethan Hawke providing a commanding performance as his mentally abusive father whose presence lingers throughout the course of the film. Simmons and Hawke’s scenes together are the best in the film and it’s the little details that add depth, such as the first scene in which Hopper Sr. returns home and Simmons initially reaction has him lean back on the wall and fold his arms and crumble into his shell as his father proceeds to debunk his accomplishments since he’s been away (e.g. ‘You threw 98 mph? Bet you think you’re astonishing.’). Hopper Sr. sees the talent he had and squandered in his son and will constantly remind him as such as he forces him to do suicides late in the evening. There’s a few scenes in which I enjoyed Noah Buschel’s direction, such as the scene which we actually see Gibson pitching in the middle of a game as his parents look on for example. Paul Giamatti’s scenes with Simmons also work well as he gives a good performance playing sports psychologist, Dr. Mobley, who has worked with young men like Hopper Gibson before when they get the case of the yips and learn of why he spends his time focusing on that particular practice.
While I enjoyed the performances, the film does feel slightly uneven for me as it throws us directly into the therapy sessions between Hopper Gibson and Dr. Mobley, while also giving us flashbacks to his school years and yet I feel there was a missed opportunity in showing us Hopper Gibson’s ‘yips’ performance which lead to him being sent to Dr. Mobley’s doorstep and also the media expect is slightly touched upon but yet it doesn’t feel like it adds to the amount of pressure that Hopper already carries on his shoulders (maybe that was Buschel’s choice but it’s just a preference point). The film may clock in at just under ninety minutes and at times I found my mind wondering during the scenes in which Simmons is not on screen with either Hawke or Giamatti, such as him spending time with Sophie Kennedy Clark’s Dorothy Boyer and Louisa Krause’s Candace Cassidy (though the former had an important scene prior to Hopper Sr. appearing on screen and the latter cemented Hopper Sr.’s viewpoint on the consequences of what the outside world would do to little junior) but I oddly just couldn’t connect with Gibson’s struggle much due to how restraint he is amongst everyone (bar that particular scene with Dorothy at the diner). It raises interesting aspects about the mental struggle for an athlete yet some people will feel irritated that it doesn’t give the viewer a definitive answer, making it a very different film compared to the by the numbers traits of other sports films out there.
The Phenom has some very strong performances from its key characters, from its lead in Johnny Simmons, Paul Giamatti and especially Ethan Hawke. The film may be given comparisons to last years Whiplash in terms of themes of taking abusive in order to achieve greatness. Bit uneven in its narrative, it’s a very interesting film from Noah Buschel. It had potential to be a great film but it just fell short of that for me. 5/10