Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Phenom: Movie Review


Interesting character study with unclear intentions.
The Phenom is not a baseball movie; that fact should make it more universal, but its disorienting structure and unclear journey do make this otherwise sound character study a difficult watch. Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) is a young man who believes (and is told) that he is destined for greatness; however, to actually achieve that greatness, he must overcome personal demons from his past – mainly his abusive father. The story is an interesting and affecting one. 2016

Directed by: Noah Buschel

Screenplay by: Noah Buschel

Starring: Johnny Simmons, Ethan Hawke

Hopper is a top-ranked pitching prospect. His struggles, to live up to the hype that surrounds him, can be applied to any field. It doesn’t have to be a baseball diamond (in fact, we barely even see a baseball diamond in this film) and Simmons really brings out the base character traits that make him human, not just a baseball player. Similar things have been said about Whiplash and its lead character. It’s a very valid and worthy comparison.

There’s an early scene where Hopper, still in high school, breaks up with his girlfriend because she’s making things about her when everything should be about him. Something Andrew almost said verbatim during his daily quest battling his ego, the people who build his ego up, and the same people who tear his ego down, and the abusiveness of his mentor as he continues his quest for greatness. And that’s exactly what is explored in this independent film about an almost great starting pitcher who might not make it.

Hopper has the belief in himself, the talent, and the dedication to make his dream a reality, but the film opens with a downtrodden Hopper seeing a sports psychologist because his rookie season is going down in flames. Through flashbacks to a slightly younger Hopper, we see the abusive relationship he had with his barely-there, criminal addict father, Hopper Senior (Ethan Hawke).

At its heart, The Phenom is a fascinating character study with Simmons admirably walking that line between arrogant asshole and victim of an abusive father and playing in a system where he’s doing everything right and still can’t win. One of the themes it best handles with Hopper is the very real phenomenon where those people close to him will hang their hopes and dreams on him, while simultaneously heaping praise on him about how great he can be and tearing him down by telling him how worthless he is. Mostly his father, but other role models do the same thing in smaller ways.

The film also includes the role of therapy as Hopper goes from cautiously trusting his therapist to passive aggressively undermining him to reluctantly trusting him. With Paul Giamatti as his therapist, there are also themes about how much we reveal of ourselves and how much we lie. In just 90 minutes, the film bites off more than it can chew and never gives the audience a clear picture of where it’s going, but it is a solid addition to the misunderstood genius genre of films.