By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
In 2000, 21 year old phenom Rick Ankiel pitched his first postseason game… and promptly forgot how to pitch.
He was never the same after those 5 wild pitches, eventually giving up pitching altogether, although he would return to the big leagues as a hitter a few years later.
The Phenom tells the story of Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), who just did the same thing, and as his sports psychiatrist (Paul Giamatti) tries to get him back on track to be a major league star, his troubled relationship with his overbearing father (Ethan Hawke) comes to the fore.
Director Noah Buschel is a bit of a phenom himself, showing real confidence and polish for such a young director. He has a great eye for setting a scene, getting into his characters’ head through sound design and camera movement in unique and arresting manner. He builds authenticity through the little details, like Hopper’s cracked phone in flashbacks, before the big signing bonus, or the way he drops a little food from his mouth, probably unnoticed but showing his nerves, while dining with his girlfriend’s parents for the first time. I was also impressed by how accurate the baseball was, right down to the Atlanta Braves’ AAA affiliate.
Most interesting, though is how Buschel ignores the rhythms of typical sports movie convention almost entirely, instead focusing on the psychology and inner lives of his primary characters in particular, the ballplayer and his shitty dad who nay be the reason he developed into such a talent and may be the reason he has the yips now. The Phenom is a great showcase for Simmons, who should get some career heat off of this performance, but unsurprisingly Hawke dominates, particularly in an ending which would feel somewhat tacked on if he didn’t create an emotional coda that ties the whole film together almost single-handedly.
The Anti-Boyhood Dad
I’m almost ashamed of this criticism, but Buschel almost avoids sports movie cliches too completely. I would have liked to have seen some more on-field action, and get some closure from the sports dynamic of the film. It’s besides the point Buschel’s going for, I know, but still- The Phenom gets in, does what it needs to, and gets out in under 90 minutes, and I wish there was just a bit more.
Don’t come to The Phenom expecting a cookie cutter sports drama- Noah Buschel’s delivers a curveball of a drama, and it’s a strike.
The Phenom (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Sip: for flashbacks
Take a Drink: whenever we hear sports media talking
Take a Drink: for sports psychiatry sessions
Take a Drink: for visualizations of his focus on the mound
Do a Shot: for Ethan Hawke being the anti-Boyhood dad