Written & Directed by Noah Buschel
The Baseball movie has long been a staple to cinema, even with its ebbs and flows in popularity in recent years. Baseball is no longer the national pastime, I think that much is evident. It’s fan base is still just as fervent, but anyone who couldn’t see that Football has so clearly overtaken Baseball on the national scene must be blind. That being said, the state of Baseball appears to be extremely healthy with the steroid era supposedly behind us, and attendance up all over the league. But health can be a relative term. As a huge professional sports industry, the people involved may not individually be healthy, which is exactly the subject of the final entry into my Baseball marathon which has been going on for about a year and a half. The pressures and attention of being a professional athlete is not easy for everybody, even if you have the talent to supposedly back up the multi-million dollar contract.
Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) just underwent his worst nightmare. After a record setting beginning to his career as a starting pitcher in the Major Leagues, Gibson threw five wild pitches in one inning, seemingly losing everything he ever worked so hard to accomplish. Now the national and local media are hounding him for reasons why he had a meltdown, but he retreats to sports psychologist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) to help him through his problems, which are seemingly rooted to his days as the high school baseball all star. Flipping back and forth between the present and the past, we eventually see the tremendous pressure his father (Ethan Hawke) has placed on him throughout his childhood, as Hopper Sr.’s athletic exploits never quite reached the peaks of Hopper Jr.
The Phenom starts quite suddenly, as we are taken directly into the office of Dr. Mobley, presumably, his first session with Hopper after his meltdown on the mound. By jumping right into the middle of the story being told, writer/director Noah Buschel makes a bold statement about how his film is going to unfold. Thrust into this story so suddenly, I was hooked right away to get a deeper look into Hopper’s psyche, and how he could have broken down. The history of the “Yips” is well documented within baseball, with players like Rick Ankiel being a great recent example of a pitcher who lost it. Chuck Knoblauch also comes to mind. So for Buschel to explore this subject in a little more depth breaks new ground within the genre. The closest thing to this in previous films in the marathon is Nuke LaLoosh and his peculiarities to keep him pitching well, which hardly covers the mental aspects of the game.
By taking a different approach to the genre of Baseball movies, Buschel creates something new all together, which makes The Phenom exciting and unpredictable. There is hardly any time spent on an actual baseball diamond at all, as Buschel is much more curious about the psyche and experience of being a big time pitching prospect. Buschel is sure to pepper the film with plenty of subtext too, like when Hopper is leaving the facility and pulls up next to an ad which makes it look like a gun is to his head, or sitting in a diner with a poster of “Little Stevie Wonder” behind him. These are small, deliberate choices which add context to the film and layers to an already stellar lead performance from Johnny Simmons, who evokes such angst mixed with an incredible longing to be the best. We get the sense that he is doing it for his father’s approval to some degree, just to get him off his back, but he is also doing this for himself. He loves the game and wants to succeed, which makes his circumstance all the more troublesome.
Ultimately, The Phenom doesn’t quite keep its momentum throughout the whole film, which is rather short at just 87 minutes, but there is plenty there to satiate. But if you’re looking for a baseball movie with action and traditional game-winning stakes, this is not the movie for you. Instead, Buschel creates stakes in the form of Hopper’s well being, his potential future success. The film ends just as abruptly as it begins, leaving something to be desired, something left incomplete. This is also deliberate, however. The whole film is calculated and shows tremendous promise, falling just short of coming all together to make something truly special. Simmons’ performance, along with solid turns by the veterans Giamatti and Hawke, pair well with the material to make an entertaining and surprising entry into the baseball movie genre.