The Phenom ✮✮✮
Fear Strikes Out
by Glenn Lovell
Hopper Gibson, a first-round draft pick whose fastball reaches a scorching 100, is the envy of every school kid with dreams of making it to “the bigs.” Just out of high school, Gibson seemingly has it all — major-league contract, fawning Sports Illustrated cover, slick agent and lucrative endorsements.
One problem: Gibson’s mind wanders when he’s on the mound and he can’t find the strike zone. A definite liability when your team’s chasing the pennant.
Which is why Gibson is currently rehabbing in Triple-A, dividing his off hours between cheap motels and sports psychologist’s couch.
Noah Buschel’s compact, impeccably performed “The Phenom,” starring a soulful Johnny Simmons as the pitcher, Paul Giamatti as the therapist, and Ethan Hawke as the albatross father, opens mid-therapy session. Besides loss of focus, Gibson complains of insomnia, bad dreams and memory lapses. It’s Dr. Mobley’s job to get him to enjoy the game again and concentrate on the batter, not the ruckus in the stands.
Though Gibson is reluctant to talk about his past, Buschel (“Neal Cassady”) fills in the blanks efficiently with flashbacks to the kid’s Florida hometown. Here, we meet the concerned high school coach, soda-fountain girlfriend, warring parents. Everyone, it seems, knows what’s best for Junior, especially his father, Hopper Sr., a “gifted” player himself who lacked drive and wound up with a rap sheet for dealing drugs. (Recognizing an opportunity, dad now pushes anabolic steroids and other PEDs. “All drugs should be legal,” he tells his creation in what can only be taken as a comment on how corrupt baseball has become.)
A variation on Robert Duvall’s Great Santini, Hawke’s father ministers a special brand of tough love, a toxic mix of physical and verbal abuse. An expert at guilt-tripping, Hopper Sr. never lets the boy forget that it’s dear ol’ dad who’s responsible for whatever success he has achieved. And just to remind him, he shows up from time to time to clock Junior with an expertly hurled beer and demand middle-of-the-night “suicides” (wind sprints).
Buschel obviously has an affinity for competitors who feel they can’t measure up and, therefore, put themselves through a special hell. (The director-writer previously chronicled the bumpy road back for a damaged actress and boxer.) Similarly, “Phenom” proves a different kind of sports film, one without much field action. We only just catch glimpses of Gibson on the mound or in the bullpen.
But that’s as it should be. Like “Fear Strikes Out” (1957), with a woefully miscast Anthony Perkins as the mentally unstable Jimmy Piersall, this is the story of an athlete who achieves out of a fear of failure rather than a love of the game. On the surface, Gibson would appear all gawky charm, the fresh-faced Norman Rockwell caricature. But during the therapy sessions, beautifully played by Giamatti with his usual soft-spoken gravitas, layers are peeled back and the kid is left drained, hollowed out. During one remarkable exchange, accusatory patient and exposed doctor reverse roles … before Gibson, exhausted, crawls back onto the couch and assumes a thumb-sucking fetus position.
Though Buschel has pulled together a first-rate ensemble — Yul Vazquez and Candace Cassidy are especially good as a concerned high school coach and a poolside kindred spirit — it’s Hawke who leaves the strongest impression. We know immediately what’s wrong with Gibson after a few minutes with this guy. No wonder The Phenom is confused: his mostly absent father is a morass of contradictions, at once boastful, fawning, sadistic and resentful. It’s only a matter of time before Hawke claims his Oscar. Why not for this performance?
Sophie Kennedy Clark plays Gibson’s college-bound sweetheart, whose lines tend to morph into lectures. “Still trying to be the dude on the Wheaties box?” she asks before reminding the star athlete, “We’re all just utterly unique aliens in this vast universe.” Try delivering that mouthful. Buschel also has trouble with the sports media camped outside Gibson’s motel: They’re dismissed as self-loathing “leeches.”
There will be those, I’m sure, who’ll find fault with this film’s length and vignette structure. At under 90 minutes, it feels like a hiccup next to the bloated and sentimental “The Natural,” which screams “epic fable.” I like Buschel’s barebones approach; it reminded me of something New Wave-y by Eric Rohmer. The abrupt ending takes place at a prison during visiting hours. Hawke’s father demands, “What are you doing here, hos? I mean I taught you everything I know already. You got my two cents.”
And then BLAM! Closing credits. Talk about a gutsy finish. It’s Buschel’s version of a killer pitch that starts out over the plate and then falls off the planet, leaving the batter gasping but impressed.
THE PHENOM ✮✮✮ With Johnny Simmons, Paul Giamatti, Ethan Hawke, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Yul Vazquez, Candace Cassidy. Directed, written by Noah Buschel. 87 min. Unrated (could be PG-13 for language, sexual situations, drug talk)