The Phenom (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A baseball pitcher with issues

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“The Phenom” is a somber and restrained sports drama which focuses more on psychological elements than physical ones. Mainly revolving around one talented but troubled rookie baseball player, the movie calmly and tentatively examines his longtime emotional issues, and we come to have more understanding and empathy on him as he struggles to cope with those issues of his.

At the beginning, we see a therapy session between Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) and his sports psychologist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti). Gibson has been one of the most promising rookie pitchers in the Major League in US, but he recently becomes less stable and confident than before, and that is why he starts to meet Mobley, who, as mentioned later in the film, is known quite well as one of the leading experts in sports psychology. They initially talk about why Gibson did not feel that confident in the middle of a previous game, and Mobley listens to Gibson with phlegmatic care and attention as trying to grasp what has troubled Gibson.

The movie subsequently goes back to Gibson’s high school years, and we see how things were mostly fine for him during that time. While he was not exactly a good student as reflected by one scene unfolded at a classroom, he received considerable support and guidance from his high school baseball team coach as a star player expected to advance further in the future, and his mother was also willing to support her son’s athletic talent as much as she could.

However, Gibson’s father, Hopper Gibson Sr. (Ethan Hawke), was not particularly nice to his son. Although he divorced his wife some time ago, he often came into the life of his ex-wife and son, and he usually bullied his son in the name of tough love because, well, as a guy who was once a very promising baseball player in the past, he was surely well aware of how talented his son is. He frequently pushed his son toward more focus and competitiveness, and, during another important game for his son, he deliberately provoked his son to the annoyance of everyone sitting around him including his ex-wife – and that certainly affected his son’s eventual output as reflected by a rather blatant visual moment during this scene.

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We see how Gibson let himself more isolated as constantly driven by himself as well as his father. He had a nice girlfriend who genuinely liked him, but then they became quite estranged from each other after a small argument between them, and there is a bittersweet scene later in the film where they meet each other again in private several years later. It is clear that she still cares about him, but it is also quite apparent that they cannot possibly go back to where they were.

Meanwhile, we also observe a slow progress between Gibson and Mobley. Although he did not have much confidence on his sports psychiatrist at first, Gibson comes to reveal more of himself as talking more with Mobley, and Mobley’s gentle and caring attitude is naturally contrasted with how harshly Gibson was treated by his father, who still exerts a considerable influence on his son as shown from a scene where he appears in front of his son again shortly after Gibson rose quickly in his professional baseball career.

Leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie carefully builds up the emotional tension surrounding its hero, and that accordingly culminates to a crucial narrative point where Gibson and Mobley become more honest to each other as a patient and a doctor, but the movie still keeps sticking to its restrained storytelling approach. It simply shows us what may be the beginning of a healing process for its hero, and we come to accept the open-ended aspect of the following scene.

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As the center of the movie, Johnny Simmons, who previously appeared in several notable films such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), carries the film well via his earnest performance. Although Gibson often feels a bit too colorless and amorphous, I guess that is what the screenplay by director/writer Noah Buschel intended from the beginning, and Simmons looks convincing as we observe how Gibson is shaped and influenced by several people around him.

In addition, Simmons are supported well by two veteran performers, who did a fabulous job of filling their respective roles with human nuances and details to be appreciated. Ethan Hawke, who has steadily been matured to become one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood, presents an unexpected side of his talent here in this film, and he surely looks as tense and hateful as demanded on the screen. Paul Giamatti, who has seldom disappointed me since his breakthrough performance in “Sideways” (2004), is equally fine as ably supporting Simmons during their several scenes in the movie, and I admire how he conveys a lot to us even when his character makes a simple gesture around the end of the film.

“The Phenom” may disappoint you if you expect a conventional sports drama, but it is worthwhile to watch for its engaging psychological drama generated between its three main characters. Although I think it could go further, the movie succinctly delivers its story and characters during its rather short running time (88 minutes), and you may come to reflect on its subjects for a while when it is over.

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