'The Phenom': Film Review

Courtesy of RLJ Entertainment
This talky psychological drama benefits from its superb performances.

Ethan Hawke plays the abusive father of an emotionally troubled young baseball player in Noah Buschel's indie drama.

Its central figure is a baseball player, but The Phenom is no sports movie. Rather, Noah Buschel's indie is an intimate psychological portrait whose action is mainly cerebral. Slow and talky but suffused with insight and intelligence, the film is another noteworthy effort from the writer/director of such intriguing if unfortunately little-seen dramas as Glass Chin and Sparrows Dance

Johnny Simmons (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays the central role of Hopper Gibson, a teenage baseball player whose pitching talents lifted him straight out of high school into the major leagues. Unfortunately, once there he proved to be a choker, and was demoted to the minors after one particularly dismal game in which he threw a series of wild pitches.

The opening scene shows him in a therapy session with Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a "mental coach" trying to help Hopper get to the emotional root of his problems and regain his sports mojo. The principal reason for the young man's angst is soon revealed by the reappearance of Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), his ex-con father who instantly resumes his habits of physically and emotionally abusing his son.

Largely composed of one-on-one scenes between the troubled young man and the various people in his life, including his supportive but skeptical high-school girlfriend (Sophie Kennedy Clark), The Phenom often has the feel of a stage play. But while it sometimes feels claustrophobic, it works well enough, thanks to the incisive characterizations, authentic dialogue and excellent performances. Simmons is highly sympathetic as the talented pitcher whose inner and outer demons threaten to destroy his career even before it begins, never allowing his performance to become overwrought. And Giamatti, playing the sort of cerebral role he can do in his sleep, brings a moving vulnerability to his shrink with skeletons in his own closet.

But it's Hawke who gives the film its dramatic urgency. Sporting a Marine buzz cut, multiple tattoos and an unbuttoned shirt, he's a commanding presence as the sadistic dad whose idea of helping his son is to offer to procure him "undetectable" steroids. Doing a 180-degree turn from his loving if flawed father in Boyhood, the actor effectively plays against type and somehow manages to make his despicable character understandable, if not sympathetic.  

Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
Production: Elephant Eye Films
Cast: Johnny Simmons, Ethan Hawke, Paul Giamatti, Yul Vasquez, Paul Adelstein, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Alison Elliot, Marin Ireland
Director-screenwriter: Noah Buschel
Producers: Kim Jose, Antonia Bogdanovich, Jeff Rice, Jeff Elliott
Executive producers: Yul Vazquez, Aaron L. Gilbert, Gregory P. Shockro, Don Mandrik, Clayton Smith, Pascal Borno
Director of photography: Ryan Samul
Production designer: Sam Lisenco
Costume designer: Anney Perrine
Composers: Aleks De Carvalho, Aaron Judlowe
Casting: Billy Hopkins

Not rated, 88 minutes