is a neurotic sport. When the chips are down, it is much more a test of nerves
than a contest of strength or speed. Unfortunately, young mega-hyped prospect
Hopper Gibson Jr.’s nerves will fail him at the worst possible time. Five wild
pitches later, he starts his mandatory sessions with one of the top sports
psychologists specializing in baseball. Gibson tries to take the talking cure
in Noah Buschel’s The Phenom, which screens during the
2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
barely take the audience five minutes to diagnose the primary source of Gibson’s
insecurities. That would be his abusive father. Hopper Senior is not afraid to
knock him around a little, but he really does his worst damage on an emotional
level. Senior is convinced he could have been a Major League talent were it not
for the distractions of prison and whatnot. As a result, he deeply resents his
we see through flashbacks how Gibson Sr.’s warped perspective on life poisons
his son’s personal relationships. He has a bit of the old man’s paranoia, which
makes his suspicious and wary around Dr. Mobley. That is a shame, because the
shrink really might be able to help Gibson, Jr.
Phenom is a strange
baseball film, because it is clearly very conversant in the recent history of
the game, but there is virtual no in-game action. Players go through trials
like that kind Gibson wrestles with all the time. (Its even more awkward when
second basemen come down with the Steve Sax curse.) This is real drama and the
stakes are high.
Buschel keeps the tone surprisingly understated, mostly stringing together a
series of one-on-one confrontations. Playing against his Linklater type, Ethan
Hawke is shockingly ferocious as Gibson Sr. You can practically see the
negative energy radiate off him. Likewise, Paul Giamatti provides the film’s
razor-sharp moral center as Dr. Mobley, in what might be the best on-screen shrink
performance since Mathieu Almaric in Jimmy P. He also provides an apostolic link to major league baseball through the
Giamatti family. For further off-the-field cred, Paul Adelstein rocks his
too-brief appearance as Gibson’s agent, transparently inspired by Scott Boras.
Unfortunately, Johnny Simmons is just too sullen and withdrawn for us to fully
relate to, which is a bit of a problem, since he is in every scene.
Let’s face it, there
is just a desperate shortage young twentysomething male actors in Hollywood who
can carry a film. Fortunately, Buschel surrounds Simmons with such talented
supporting players (like Frank Wood and Meg Gibson, who make a strong
impression in their scene as his long-suffering high school girlfriend’s parents),
they are able to pull him through and take some of the pressure off.
Regardless, real sports fans will appreciate his largely cliché-free narrative,
which ends long before the “big game.” Recommended for those who appreciate
moodier baseball films, like Fear Strikes
Out and Bang the Drum Slowly, The Phenom screens again tonight (4/20)
and Friday (4/22), as part of this year’s Tribeca.
Labels: Baseball, Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Tribeca '16