The Phenom (2016) Film Review from the 15th Annual Tribeca Film Festival, a movie directed by Noah Buschel, starring Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Johnny Simmons, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Elizabeth Marvel, Lousia Krause, and Paul Edelstein.
Noah Buschel’s The Phenom isn’t your typical sports film at a first glance. Right from the film’s opening, the classical music score, and some great montages, The Phenom redefines the baseball movie genre. Rather than focusing on the sport, the film explores the player’s psyche and how he overcomes his issues to be a better athlete.
The film focuses on rookie pitcher Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), a young man who has it all: being a third-ranked pitcher in the country, support from his school, a loving mother (Alison Elliott), and a beautiful girlfriend Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark). However, Gibson becomes strangely distant from everyone, which affects his game. For no reason at all, he becomes more uncertain about where his life is heading. Once his father Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke) re-enters his life, Gibson suddenly sees everything clearly. Hopper Sr. shows some tough love to Gibson, often being a force of nature who pushes his son to the limit to make him a better player. Coming out of prison, Hopper Sr. starts getting abusive towards his son and starts pushing him around to be the best he can be. He constantly reminds Gibson that his newfound success is all due to him.
With his father around, Gibson starts growing suspicious of those close to him, particularly towards his girlfriend Dorothy and his unconventional sports therapist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti). During their sessions, Dr. Mobley tries to dig out from Gibson on what is causing his anxiety towards everyone. As much of the film explores Gibson’s daddy issues, we also learn about the frequent concept of athletes focusing too much on fame instead of the simpler things in life. Most of the action in the film takes place in conversations, whether it’s in therapy or quarrels. The film goes deep into Gibson’s past to explain what’s going on with him now.
The biggest highlight from the film is Ethan Hawke’s powerful performance as Gibson’s father. His fatherly role is entirely different from his other role as a father to a teenage boy in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Even though we only get to see Hawke in a few scenes, his presence is felt throughout the film due to Gibson’s similar behavior that he projects onto everyone. Even the other actors in the film like Giamatti doesn’t get much screen time with Johnny Simmons as much of the narrative is pretty scattered.
However, the film does stand out on it’s own with some great development and framework. Each one of these scenes feels like a short story that all connects to Gibson’s life story. Buschel’s screenplay has some sharp nuances that are very uncommon for a sports film. Buschel breaks up the film like a psychological study of his subject. He makes the audience study the character under a microscope as we see every aspect of his everyday life. In the scenes with two characters stuck in dialogue, the framing and editing of the scenes makes it feel like a documentary where someone is getting interviewed off screen.
Even though The Phenom gets dicey in cleverly explaining Gibson’s issues with his father, we are still taken onto this perilous journey full of intrigue and fascination. The story goes beyond the sport that Gibson partakes in, as we find out how he gets his focus back in the game. It’s really a character piece that shows that despite having fame and fortune, there are still things that one may miss out on if they don’t look around them. The film does miss the mark when it comes to character development and story, but it’s still a great piece of work that marvelously and positively explores the complications of family and forgiveness.
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