Noah Buschel’s The Phenom may be about a struggling young pitcher’s attempt to overcome his mental block after a bad baseball game has him sent down to the minors, but the film is by no means a standard sports movie. Outside of an opening scene of baseball action that turns out to be archival footage two people are watching on a TV set, there’s none of the big-game action and sentimental triumph-over-adversity arcs that are usually de rigueur for these types of films. Instead, The Phenom is mostly made up of a series of conversations: therapy sessions and confrontations, the film diving into the past in order to understand the present, the way pitching wunderkind Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) explores his own personal history under the guidance of his psychologist, Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti).
Prominent in the flashbacks is Hopper’s father (Ethan Hawke), the main source of his angst. In one scene early on, we see Hopper in a diner with his then-girlfriend, Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), during which he voices his distrust of other people in general while claiming he has no need for an education, trusting his pitching talent to take him all the way to the top. Then, when his father appears in the following scene, having just been released from prison, we immediately see where he gets this off-putting attitude from: In no time at all, Hopper Sr. is already throwing a beer can at his son’s head and taunting him about how much he owes his success to him. Later on, we see him waking his son up at 3:30 a.m. just to go training, and then later heckling him at a minor-league game. It’s a cycle of abuse that appears to only now finally be having an effect on him.
Though these daddy issues make up the bulk of The Phenom, the film also touches on the effects of a culture that puts too much emphasis on winning and money at the expense of simple healthy competition. To some extent, Hopper’s troubles stem from all this excessive pressure to prove himself in order to justify his celebrity and riches. (Naturally, when he’s having dinner with his agent, he asks about whether he still has a particular advertising deal in spite of his recent slump.) It’s telling, then, that one of Dr. Mobley’s maneuvers is to bring him to an empty baseball field and hypnotize him into imagining a time when he played baseball simply for the pleasure of it.
Buschel directs his own script in the manner of a psychologist dissecting a subject under a microscope. During two-hander dialogue scenes, the framing and cutting suggests the feeling of people being interviewed by an unforgiving camera, with one character responding to another heard off screen. Buschel adds to the sense of chilly observation by limiting the use of music on the soundtrack, thus denying us easy emotional markers and leaving us to draw our own conclusions based only on these characters’ words and behavior. Only a handful of songs and a recurring use of the opening movement of Mozart’s 11th Piano Sonata (heard over the opening credits in Glenn Gould’s ultra-slow interpretation) offer any comment on the action. Though The Phenom runs the risk of too neatly explaining Hopper’s issues through his father’s overbearing behavior, it still takes us on an unexpectedly fascinating journey, one that broadens beyond a pitcher trying to regain his mojo into the story of a young man realizing what he’s missed out on in his life in his pursuit of fame and money.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 13—24.