By Tony Schwab, Staff Writer
“The Phenom,” Noah Buschel’s sports movie playing at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, starts off as a classic piece of Americana. A promising young pitcher named Hopper (Johnny Simmons) struggling with the stress of fame begins to visit a sports psychologist, one Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti). Looking for an explanation to his troubles, the two analyze the stresses of Hopper’s childhood as we transition into an interesting, evocative, often weird take on a very familiar story.
So many movies and TV shows have been made about the star high school athlete, a hero in his community but constantly worried about living up to expectations. For a while “The Phenom” is a nice take on this narrative, gaining strength from how familiar and comfortable the material is. We see Hopper walk around school, feeling self-conscious as person after person stares at him. He listens politely as his coach advises him to stick to the straight and narrow. Most importantly, he struggles with the return of his dad (played by Ethan Hawke), an alcoholic and failed athlete who has raised Hopper to be mercilessly competitive.
Hawke plays Hopper Sr. as a loathsome, almost psychotic loser. At first his performance is slightly over the top, but as the film goes on the depth of his torment is captured tremendously. The movie shows all of the different subtle ways he has conditioned his son, making it clear that his harshness is mixed with enough praise and semi-encouragement to leave Jr. very much in need of therapy.
The greater depth of Hawke’s character in the second half comes with a general shift in tone. Jr’s therapy progresses, as Mobley pushes him to let go of the attitudes of his father. Eventually, he looks into Mobley’s own past and finds that this therapist has his own demons, leading to an intense and extremely moving confrontation, which ultimately gives Hopper’s treatment a believable ending. His final scene with his father is heartbreaking.
The second half’s intense drama brings out great acting from Simmons and Giamatti. Simmons carries his abuse in the guarded way he carries himself and in his mumbling through of many conversations. Giamatti is hardly new to the troubled intellectual type, but he handles it with the effortless skill of a great character actor.
The supporting characters are worthy of praise as well. Sophie Kennedy Clark is an unusually well-thought-out love interest. Paul Adelstein is funny as Hopper’s aggressive agent. Alison Elliot is frustrated but loyal as Hopper’s mother.
Buschel takes a very daring approach, with many very standard scenes turned into set pieces. When a teacher lectures Hopper on the need to develop parts of himself other than baseball, her speech is in one, continuous shot. When Hopper meets his girlfriend’s parents, they engage in a discussion on socialism and the politics of American sports. Some of these work better than others, but ultimately all of them show a director unwilling to slip into complacency.
“The Phenom” premiered at Tribeca Film Festival 2016.