Imagine a sensitive, genuine portrayal of Major League's Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn's struggles on the mound and it might look something like The Phenom. Written and directed with the analytical precision of a psychotherapist by Noah Buschel, the film is about a young baseball pitcher, Hopper Gibson (an unrecognizable Johnny Simmons), who isn't living up to his immense potential. While ostensibly about baseball, or any sport where victory rests heavily on the shoulders of an individual, there is very little actual gameplay involved. In that respect The Phenom is unlike nearly every other sports movie out there.
Buschel doesn't even bother setting things up, thrusting us right in the middle of Hopper's therapy session with Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a sports therapist hired to sort out his pitching woes. It's a bit jarring, actually, but that effect is what Buschel is going for. It fits the disorientation Hopper must be feeling as a promising 18-year-old superstar with a 98 mph heater, who suddenly finds himself incapable of finding the plate. Much of the story plays out in flashback as Mobley tries to get to the root of Hopper's problem. We see him growing up as a kid who isn't particularly bright but incredibly talented, and that's enough for him to coast through school. We see various girlfriends, including one who is an uber-liberal and totally unimpressed by his impending celebrity status and wealth. Hopper doesn't understand her; isn't being rich and famous what this whole thing has been about?
Certainly that's the lesson his father, the dysfunctional and demanding Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke, grungy and tatted up, basically the polar opposite of his Boyhood role) would want his son to learn. Hopper Sr. is a piece of work, a petty criminal who sees in his son the talent he once had and squandered. He won't let his son fail, even if he has to beat the greatness out of him. His first night home from prison is spent ridiculing Hopper and diminishing his accomplishments...
"You threw 98 mph? Bet you think you're astonishing."
When Hopper Sr. isn't putting his son down he's hitting him with beer cans or forcing him to run suicides late into the evening. He's terrible and brutal, but celebrity parents like Hopper Sr. are a reality, and the damage they do to their offspring is just as real. What's interesting about Buschel's film is that he isn't willing to write off Hopper Sr. completely as the cause of Hopper's problems. There's recognition that his demands, as horrible as they may appear on the surface, probably did contribute to Hopper's early success. It may not be as much as Hopper Sr. thinks, given his obvious delusions of grandeur. But clearly Hopper wouldn't be where he is without his father's heavy-handed guidance.
Buschel is interested in the character study of an athlete, pure and simple, and he takes his time making the examination. The film moves along at an unreasonably slow pace, so much so that 90-minutes feel like a 9-inning baseball game, plus overtime. There are revelations about Dr. Mobley that emerge, and they echo some of what Hopper is going through, but ultimately they don't matter that much. Nor do we ever really see the impact of these sessions on the field. Is Hopper...fixed? Buschel may not be concerned with the answer to that question, but anyone who bothers to sit through The Phenom will want to know if Hopper is hurling strikes or giving up home runs.
Rating: 3 out of 5