Calling The Phenom a baseball movie is deceptive despite obvious themes. Yes, a rookie struggles with focus on a major league level, but Noah Buschel’s latest film is less about athletic superiority, and more about mental health. We rarely see baseball movies that explore a young character who doesn’t take to fame and success with celebrity grace, since filmmakers typically opt for happy-go-lucky stories of underdogs finding superiority. Is an 18-year-old pitcher no longer a kid just because he signed on the dotted line? Buschel offers an intriguing look into the mind of a boy who’s forced into maturity on a public stage, pumped full of praise while a regretful father blurs the lines between motivation and abuse.
Johnny Simmons stars as Hopper Gibson, a rookie hurler dealing with confidence and control issues in his first year as a big-leaguer. After leaving high school and entering the MLB draft as a top prospect, Hopper finds himself plagued by social pressures and a father figure (played by Ethan Hawke) who’s more a distraction than supportive parent. In an effort to dispel Hopper’s cloudy funk (throwing five wild pitches in an inning classifies as major funk), a “mental coach” named Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) attempts to straighten the boy’s head before September’s playoff schedule begins. Can the young rook shake his jitters and lead a postseason charge, or will Hopper Gibson become another promising stud who burns out before making his mark?
What makes The Phenom so different is how we explore the mind of a kid – that’s what he is – both before and after his decision to jump right into the MLB. Hopper debates against disconnected opinions from his intellectual girlfriend Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), fights journalistic spotlights and deals with his father’s aggressive outbursts – all of which thrust him into a frustratingly closed-off world. We’ve seen so many films deal with declining stars and mid-career heroes, but Hopper’s angst comes from a place of loneliness and confusion defined by age. Hell, our brains don’t even stop developing until age 25 – yet we treat 18-ish year-olds like they should be grown, fully-developed professionals.
The two most influential men in Hopper’s life – Hopper Sr. and Dr. Mobley – represent two very different glimpses into perceptions on success. Of one opinion, Hopper Sr. makes his son do wind sprints whenever he shows emotion on the mound. A champion only mean-mugs when in game-mode, and strikes batters out before they even enter the box – very different from Dr. Mobley’s advice, which urges Hopper to channel the first time he ever had fun playing baseball. One man takes the macho approach, while the other stresses personal happiness over calloused skin – but both arcs are acted enthusiastically (one through empathy, the other through brash white-trash hotheadedness), buying into Hopper’s own breakdown.
Speaking of Hopper, Johnny Simmons takes to the titular phenom with an appropriately shut-down, human frustration. Not once is he caught over-acting or exploding, as Hopper bottles all his emotions in the most unhealthy (yet understandable) of ways. He can’t sleep, struggles with blurred memories, but still refuses to release deeply-seeded feelings that are preventing progress from happening – like you or I might. Simmons does his best work when saying virtually nothing, caught in a battle between remaining “strong” and crying out for help.
Credit The Phenom with raising all the proper questions about how we idolize and objectify barely-legal talents, and thank Noah Buschel for pushing this centralized agenda. Certain aspects do feel a bit forced – a rare moment of dickishness Hopper displays towards Dorothy, life’s constant need to belittle Hopper – but strong performances coupled with Buschel’s artistic vision offer a different kind of sports drama. One that grasps innocence, dispelling the notion that these early-stage athletes have forgone their right to be unhappy by accepting stardom. The mind of a ballplayer is molded from an early age, and everyone has a different idea on how to build the perfect star – all the while forgetting that there’s an actual person pushing him/herself each and every day.
The Phenom isn't a dramatic home run, but Noah Buschel's vision still sheds a unique spotlight on the struggles of young athletes.