Midway through The Phenom, director Noah Buschel delivers a scene of exciting craftsmanship. It’s a motionless, two-minute wide shot of an illuminated roadside service stop, standing out from the pitch black night. Hanging above, at the upper corner of the shot, is a billboard of two provocative female eyes that appear to be looking down at a coach bus that is getting gas. There are evocations here of Edward Hopper’s paintings on loneliness of the working class, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous “Dr. T.J. Eckleburg” billboard from The Great Gatsby. There’s also some cinematic auteurism, borrowing well from film directors Michael Antonioni and Michael Haneke, each who employed several minute-long single frame shots to evoke somberness and slowly heightening suspense.
But the scene’s visual splendor is offset by excessively mawkish voiceover dialogue. Hopper Gibson Jr. (Johnny Simmons), a 19-year-old pro baseball pitcher who’s suffering from a case of the yips and currently serving a stint in the Minor Leagues, is having a generically tender-hearted phone conversation with his old high school coach. Hopper’s coach, ever-patient, re-assures Hopper yet again that life’s ups and downs are inevitable, and that Hopper needs to embrace both. The real gravity of the moment — Hopper’s isolated, nomadic existence while slipping American dreams watch from above — would have came through more compellingly in utter silence.
This roadside scene is emblematic of The Phenom, which is remarkable for both its transfixing cinematography and Johnny Simmons’ tightly coiled performance, but it’s also mired by its over reliance on exposition. Much of the film’s overwrought dialogue comes from Paul Giamatti who, playing a fatherly sports psychologist named “Mobley”, delivers a flatter version of Robin Williams’s “Sean McGuire” from Good Will Hunting. Not that Giamatti has much to work with, as Mobley’s advice is straight out of the Hollywood Screenwriter’s Manual for psychological disorders. Indeed, there’s a very predictable “you’re just a kid” speech as part of the film’s end game.
Where there is a stock father figure, there’s a terrible father who is at the root of his son’s psychological issues (Hopper Gibson, Sr.), and that role is assumed by Ethan Hawke. Hawke is a remarkably versatile actor, but as a self-stylized grifter (garish tattoos on full display) with an abusive streak toward his son, he veers a little too far outside his more familiar range of flawed yet more wholesome characters. Delivering vulgar riffs to his son in efforts to “toughen him up”, Hawke channels his best impression of a mangy dog violently snapping at perceived threats all around him.
What is Hopper Sr. so threatened by? Hawke conveys a number psychological reasons — envy, regret, protectionism, to name a few — all which keep the audience guessing where Hopper Sr.’s intentions lie. However, his performance ultimately screams of effort and awkwardness, and while these strained qualities may be a part of Hopper Sr.’s insufferable persona, they come across as a distracting and overly applied plot device.
The Phenom recovers from these flaws in large part thanks to Johnny Simmons. Even when the dialogue and supporting performances are cutting it awfully thick, Hopper’s reactions are a joy to watch; his lines are delivered with cutting coolness and raw intelligence which seem to penetrate anyone in the same room with him.
Simmons juxtaposes Hopper’s biting lip with a continually uneasy defensive posture, which slowly and quietly breaks down as the film carries on. To this end, Buschel’s assured camera punctuates Simmons’ nuanced performance. By routinely using medium shots to capture Hopper and his companions in the same frame with well defined space between them, Buschel creates a lingering adversarial distance between Hopper and the rest of the cast reminiscent of the 60 feet between a pitcher’s mound and home plate. The idea that athletes never really leave a field, or that the rest of us mortals never shake off the suffocating structures of our day jobs, quietly creeps up as an emotionally effective sub story in the film.
Ultimately, Simmon’s emotional urgency to bridge the gaps of human relationships with others mostly falls short on any kind of big reveal. But even as the finish line becomes clear half-an-hour too early, Buschel has moments when he defies structural predictability.
During The Phenom‘s final act, Mobley takes Hopper out to a non-descript baseball field and tells him to remember a time when he played the game for joy. It’s as typical until Buschel surprises us. As Hopper closes his eyes and tries to remember his childhood, the camera points up to a cloudy sky. Raindrops start to fall on the camera lens, creating a watery image. It symbolizes many things — a kid’s tears, for one. But it’s also Buschel speaking not only to Hopper, but to the audience, that memory cannot be too tightly structured; that it must be accepted whole, the teary and the clear.
Buschel is clearly on the right track to fully embracing the limitations of conventional structures in storytelling. When he does, it could lead to a minor masterpiece, which at times The Phenom flirts with.