The Phenom (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Those expecting a standard feel-good sports comedy-drama are going to be disappointed with “The Phenom,” written and directed by Noah Buschel, an efficient and haunting character study of a young baseball pitcher whose blossoming career is suddenly endangered because his abusive past has begun to consume him whole. The film is written and shot with great intelligence, insight, a balance of perspicuity and mystery, and humanity from top to bottom, a rarity in the current landscape of the movies where spectacle is valued more often than reality.
Notice the stunning use of silence. Mainstream works are prone to employing soundtrack between moments and even during conversations at times in order to hint at what the character might be feeling or thinking. Here, silence is utilized to highlight the story’s melancholic fog, that even though Hopper (Johnny Simmons) is making millions as an athlete, a dream or goal for many people, he is severely unhappy and no one is genuinely happy for his success. In one way or another, he is envied, especially by his father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who lives vicariously and damagingly through his son’s golden arm.
Hawke is a highly likable and charming performer, and he presents a sympathetic monster here. From the first instance where father and son share a scene and interact, we learn quickly the level of control senior has over junior. When the son is not being insulted, he is being threatened, oftentimes in the form of physical threats but the psychological beatings are equally unbearable and maddening. Hawke and Simmons share excellent chemistry, believable as father and son, predator and prey.
The story has two hearts and both are handled with vitality and a sense of yearning. The first involves Hopper and a sport psychiatrist. Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) attempts to untangle his patient from the vines of depression, inertia, and lack of self-worth. But their exchanges are not inspirational is such a way where the doctor says one line and the patient finds his light out of the blue. It is a process and I appreciated that the screenplay never surrenders to or reduces itself so it could fit into the pitfalls of Movie Psychology 101. Instead, the relationship is, for the most part, built upon the rhythms, beats, and faint pulses of exchanges rather than through what is being outwardly expressed.
The second involves Hopper and a girl named Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Park), a girl from high school who he liked but messed it up terribly before moving onto professional baseball. A few years ago, there was a movie called “The Spectacular Now,” directed by James Ponsoldt, in which it told the story of two teenagers finding a kind of love in one another. It treated its characters with respect without sacrificing an ounce of complexity. There are elements of that picture here which I found beautiful and craved to see more of.
There are no big games. No inspirational speeches. Not even a scene where the main character flicks a switch in his mind and works hard to turn everything around. It offers instead a final scene where the son is willing to face his father at his worst. And Hopper Jr. is not afraid, not even remotely ashamed of his old man. Some may quickly and foolishly label the scene as depressing. I found it to be deeply humanistic and optimistic. Notice there is no silence between them—at least not the kind that cripples, torments, nor poses a threat. And sometimes that’s enough of a first step toward a better tomorrow.