Tribeca Film Festival 2016: The Phenom

| April 18, 2016

Take the psychological tension and pressure of Whiplash, the therapist-patient dynamic of Good Will Hunting and the real world, small town sensibility of Friday Night Lights and set them on a pitcher’s mound, and you have a pretty solid impression of The Phenom. Premiering at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, this indie American sports drama is an impressive and thoughtful examination of young talent, and the pressure, ego and tumult that accompany it.

Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) met expectations when he went from being the top pitching prospect in the country to star rookie phenom with a winning record of 6-0, until suddenly he’s throwing wild pitches and the strike zone is a foreign land for him. With the playoffs approaching and heavy media scrutiny surrounding him, the team sends him down to the minor league and arrange for him to see a revered, yet unconventional sports therapist played by Paul Giamatti. Trying to get to the source of his anxiety, Hopper is forced to confront his issues regarding his overbearing and abusive father, played by Ethan Hawke.

The Phenom, written and directed by Noah Buschel (Neal Cassady, Glass Chin), is not a traditional sports film—there is not a climactic big game, no stadium-rousing moments, no loud, goosebump-inducing triumphs. As a baseball fan I can say I wasn’t missing any of the action. It is a strong sports film because it truthfully conveys so many of the internal elements and struggles of a young athlete. Can the pressure to be great be the motivation that causes you to thrive, as well as the thing that eventually brings you down? Does having athletic talent and success really warrant reverence, esteem and admiration? Does it make someone special? It also examines the role that media plays in the game of baseball, as well as the influences of different coaches, on the field and otherwise.

Johnny Simmons and Ethan Hawke are both excellent, exhibiting opposite elements in an uneasy dynamic. Simmons is perfect in containing the heaviness and anxiety of an uncommunicative young talent, and Hawke is equally strong as the feral alcoholic father, who when not in jail, is devoted to pounding his son into pitching perfectly. The role of the therapist is right in Paul Giamatti’s pocket and he nails it easily.

The Phenom captures the mental grind of not just baseball, but of young talent, of living up to potential and of realizing dreams, and should be a strong contender in the Narrative Competition.

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