The Phenom (2016)

  • Time: 90 min
  • Genre: Drama | Sport
  • Director: Noah Buschel
  • Cast: Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Johnny Simmons


When major-league rookie pitcher Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) can’t find the plate, he’s sent down to the minor leagues and begins sessions with an unorthodox sports psychologist (Paul Giamatti). In the process, hidden conflicts with his overbearing father (Ethan Hawke) are brought to light.

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  • “I’m just an ordinary kid,” Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) mutters to his psychologist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti). On the contrary, Hopper has the golden arm. Plucked straight out of high school and sent to the major leagues, he’s been earmarked as the titular phenom with his 98-mile-an-hour fastball and his pinpoint accuracy. But something happened to the kid on the mound, something that caused his to throw five wild pitches in a single inning and get downgraded to the minors, and Dr. Mobley has been hired by the team that drafted Hopper to fix their investment.

    Though there are scenes of Hopper on the mound, The Phenom is more a character study than a sports film. Hopper is wrestling with the fame and expectation that comes from having a talent that’s put him in the national spotlight. He’s a good kid – he doesn’t care about the money, he just wants enough to be able to buy his mom (Alison Elliott) a better house – but he doesn’t have the wherewithal to come up with sound bites for the paparazzi that’s always crowding around him. No emotions on the mound, no emotions off the mound, everyone’s an enemy – these are the lessons his father (Ethan Hawke) taught him and he has learned them perhaps a little too well.

    His father is a piece of work as evidenced by the flashbacks. Tattooed, absent for long periods of time, constantly tearing him down. He can’t believe the scouts are buzzing around his toothpick of a son, he tells Hopper before offering to get him some steroids to help bulk him up. He throws a beer can and hits the side of his son’s face to get him to run sprints outside, he wakes him up in the middle of a night to put in some jogging time before school. This is what it takes to be the greatest, he keeps telling his boy. Not that his dad would know – a former baseball player himself, he squandered his career by slacking off, drinking and brawling. Maybe he wants something better for his kid, maybe he’s jealous. Hawke commands as the tyrannical father but also elicits sympathy, especially in the final moments between the father and son.

    Simmons is just as excellent, portraying how Hopper is lost and even deadened. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he keeps telling his girlfriend Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), who tries to be supportive but persists in telling him that his talent doesn’t make him any more special than anyone else. A teacher (Elizabeth Marvel) warns that if he only does what’s easy, then he’s just an untrained thoroughbred, which isn’t a racehorse but a wild animal. He has to work at being a person who’s up to the level of his talent, but who is that person?

    Writer-director Noah Buschel doesn’t always succeed in deconstructing Hopper or, by extension, any athletic figure, but he ably expresses how mentally fractured his central character is by offering a series of vignettes rather than one overarching story. The execution can feel stagey, but Simmons and Hawke harmonise to make this Good Will Hunting-adjacent film a compelling one.

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