The Phenom is a movie about baseball with little baseball. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
More theatrical play than sports movie, the talk-heavy drama with a couple of standout performances is a dive into the psychology of winning, losing and playing. Unlike most sports films, there’s no rousing, big-game finale. There’s just the struggle of dealing with the day-to-day.
Hopper Gibson (a very good Johnny Simmons, The Stanford Prison Experiment) is a young, hotshot pitcher who has lost his groove. He is sent to a renowned and unorthodox sports psychologist, Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), who gets him to open up about his life, especially the often dysfunctional relationship he has with his psychologically abusive dad, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke).
The father is a washed-up player and petty criminal who still thinks he has lessons to impart to his son — kind of like Hawke’s fatherly character in Boyhood with neither the charm nor the Beatles collection.
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Built around a series of conversations Gibson has had throughout his life with his supportive coach (Paul Adelstein), long-suffering mom (Alison Elliott), intellectual girlfriend (Sophie Kennedy Clark) and, of course, his angry, bitter dad, The Phenom attempts to peel back the facade to get inside the mind of a faltering player.
Simmons brings just the right amount of athletic ambition and early-onset life-weariness to his part, but it’s an aggressive and forceful turn by Hawke that really stands out.
Written and directed by Noah Buschel, The Phenom — with its sudden ending and lack of actual playing — may not be a home run for those in search of traditional peanuts and Cracker Jacks. But as an examination of a young man at a crossroads, it’s a good day at the ballpark.
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☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: Noah Buschel
Cast: Paul Giamatti, Ethan Hawke, Johnny Simmons
Running time: 87 min.