Sports films frequently pivot on an unexamined hypocrisy, thematically insisting that winning doesn’t matter while narratively confirming the opposite. In many films concerned with neurotic sports heroes, their mental health, which is usually imperiled by some form of capitalist anxiety, is ultimately shown to be important only in proportion to its restoration of their ability to triumph. In this context, Noah Buschel’s The Phenom offers a bracing break from the status quo, as it’s a sports movie in which sports are rarely seen, and in which winning doesn’t occur at all, foregrounding a quest for mental and emotional health in their absence.
Which isn’t to say that The Phenom isn’t formulaic, as it’s essentially Good Will Hunting dressed up in pro-baseball regalia, but Buschel’s concision as a dramatist is almost transcendently resonant. The filmmaker lingers on torment rather than clichés, refusing to offer pat homilies as escape clauses for the audience. Buschel fashions long moments of unstudied silence, in which one or two characters at a time (rarely more) are allowed to stew in their sadness, developing implicative rapport with one another while quietly offering their vulnerabilities to us, allowing us to enter their headspace.
Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) is a young baseball pitcher of astounding promise who’s in the middle of a terrifying cold streak. Omitting nearly all exposition, Buschel opens the film in the middle of one of Gibson’s therapy sessions with Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) as they watch game footage. Mobley is a legendary figure with skeletons in his closet that will, of course, parallel the baggage through which Gibson must work to rediscover his game, but Buschel focuses solely on the baggage. We never learn whether or not Gibson’s therapy makes a difference in the field.
What concerns Buschel is Gibson’s relationship with Mobley and his father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), two authority figures who represent a humanistic and self-loathing approach to refining oneself, respectively. Hopper Sr. is an American specialty: the promising misfit undone by personal demons who now bitterly stews himself in booze. Hopper Sr. also played baseball in high school, but never went further, and now he lords his failure over his son as an example not to live by. This failure as ironic, self-appointed sage is a very real type of person, and Buschel and Hawke are alive to the nuances of Hopper Sr.’s self-hating quest for vicarious benediction, particularly in how he resents Gibson for exhibiting uncertain emotions that he feels himself.
Buschel and Hawke are also aware—and this is what gives the film irresolvable stature—that Hopper Sr.’s dysfunctional parenting is a reason for Gibson’s greatness in the field, even if it’s made the young man so miserable that it’s now undermining said greatness. Hawke isn’t one we normally associate with abusive authority roles, and this unlikeliness of casting is utilized as the source of energy that powers the character. Hawke never allows one to forget the intense pain that drives Hopper Sr. to goad his son, and Simmons, in an illuminatingly recessive performance, complementarily shows how that pain is rechanneled by the next generation of haunted American perfectionists looking to reside atop the commercialist food chain. With The Phenom, Buschel and his cast show that formula can be repurposed to serve empathetic ends without losing its self-actualizing appeal. Or to put it bluntly: The film divorces a coming-of-age quest from money.