Review by Rob Vaux
Most sports movies look for meaning in the sport itself. The smart ones examine the men and women who play them, and what drives them to compete the way they do. The Phenom succeeds on entirely different merits however: using sports as a crucible for problems of a more intimate nature. It bears more in common with psychological drama like Ordinary People and Antoine Fisher than anything that goes on on the ballfield. Indeed, the most interesting parts of the film are in the psychologist’s office, which is where the meat of the drama takes place, and those looking for another “troubled star comes through to win the big game” story are apt to be gravely disappointed. The Phenom has far bigger fish to fry than the disposition of a championship trophy.
The subject is Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), a promising your ballplayer pushed to excel by his demanding father (Ethan Hawke) and suffering a grave psychological toll in the process. The central question arrives early: does performance on the field necessitate cauterizing natural human emotions like getting frustrated when you make a mistake? And if so, what happens when all that damage starts leaking out?
Antoine Fisher dealt with that topic masterfully, and The Phenom doesn’t quite carry the same insight. But by shifting the subject from the military to the sports world, it develops a new angle to treat the same basic issue. In a hyper-masculine community like these, what kind of price is exacted on those who deny their own emotions in order to excel? We’ve been watching that unfold in the NFL in recent years to horrifying effect. The Phenom finds its stride when it grapples with that question earnestly and directly. Hopper’s father is revealed as a monster, of course, but this movie doesn’t interest itself with glib answers or pat explanations. Indeed the worst parts involve simple plot exposition, readily delivered in the copious therapy sessions with help from Hopper’s shrink (Paul Giamatti) working hard to unpack it all.
Casting matters quite a bit in material like this, especially Giamatti who doesn’t have a whole lot to work with, but who conjures unspoken pain of his own when working to calm his patient’s raging demons. He stands in stark contrast to Hawke, who steals the show as villains often do and finds a way into the cause of this young man’s troubles without limiting or simplifying the emotions involved.
That’s a trick The Phenom plays amazingly well, with strong dialogue from writer-director Noah Buschel that skirts away from anything glib, obvious or short-sighted. That’s important because you can sense how close this movie comes to the easy clichés, and how painfully aware its creator is of the pitfalls. With help from the terrific cast, he avoids from the trouble spots and engages in something far more interesting: a cold, hard look at how the scars of our youth follow us into adulthood and what attempting to make peace with one’s demons actually feels like. It’s a rare enough trick to cause some notice when the filmmakers pulls it off. The Phenom knows its strengths and evades it weaknesses, which helps propel it to some very interesting places.