4.5 / 5 stars
Watching the first scene of The Phenom, I thought I was somehow in the middle of the film by mistake. The opening conversation between pro baseball pitcher Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) and his sports specialty shrink (Paul Giamatti) feels so natural, so in-progress, I momentarily questioned whether I was seeing the beginning of movie. I was, of course, and I was instantly caught up in its pivotal, revealing scene, placed snugly and confidently in the film’s first minutes.
This is just writer-director Noah Buschel doing his thing, putting the highest priority on building and molding his characters, sometimes against what we’ve been conditioned to expect from countless other films about people trying to find their way.
It’s not like Buschel is a cinematic contrarian for the sake of being different. His story of a troubled ballplayer is highly artistic, yet about as unforced as any drama I can remember in recent years. The three main characters – played by a fantastic trifecta of Simmons, Giamatti, and the remarkably intimidating Ethan Hawke – seem to pop up as the story demands. Buschel pays no mind to traditional sports movie plot developments because that’s not what The Phenom lives on. It’s simple, really, like baseball itself: the experiences and thoughts of a standout player once driven mercilessly by his miserable father, now hitting a painful mental block in his first year of Major League ball.
With that explained, let’s be clear: The Phenom is not a baseball movie. (A fact illustrated by the film’s low Amazon scores, maybe viewers are expecting The Rookie?) I’d be surprised if I saw more than five or six pitches throughout the entire film. Baseball acts as the precarious platform for Buschel’s characters to teeter on, and it’s a sport just right for this movie. More elegant and sensitive than football, more psychological than basketball, it fits the character of Hopper Gibson like a glove.
Along a subtly folded timeline, we see Hopper as a seriously strong high school athlete, but not a typical BMOC or ladies’ man. Simmons plays him as a quiet young man, a bit shy, sympathetically naïve. Once we see Hopper’s abusive ex-con dad (Hawke, wow) beat on him, the pitcher’s personality traits, past and present, make sense.
But Hopper’s life doesn’t make too much sense to him. He’s obviously carrying the weight of his father’s abuse – a fact that Buschel never even comes close to overselling – as he moves to the minors, tries to figure out his girlfriend, and speaks so honestly in psych sessions with Giamatti, scenes that are both sad and simply wonderful.
A great deal of that authentic feeling comes from Buschel’s astounding ear for the rhythms of dialogue. The conversations between Simmons and Giamatti have a sense of improvisation, partly from the actors’ ability to live the words, but also from Buschel’s refusal to cut scenes in a conventional way, giving each actor plenty of screen time for both action and reaction.
The dynamic is roughly the same between Simmons and Hawke, but there’s a slower, more unpredictable cadence that makes Hawke’s explosive anger even more frightening. His demeanor goes from pissy to scary in a lightning flash, though it’s not framed as the emotional center of the scene. That would be too cheap and obvious, two things The Phenom is anything but. Hawke is shockingly solid, not leaning on his usual slacker charm.
If we needed any reinforcement of Noah Buschel’s penchant for aesthetics, The Phenom features a single long shot that plays like an Edward Hopper – a team bus sits at a rickety-looking gas station framed by a billboard in the distance with a giant eye, the dialogue one side of a phone conversation coming from someone we can’t see. It’s a somber vision of how even a superstar can end up becoming a part of the scenery or, worse, disappearing from within it.