Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 23, 2016)
A mix of sports story and inspirational tale, 2016’s The Phenom looks at the world of big-time baseball. Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) always dreamed that he would achieve success as a Major League pitcher, and his father Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke) relentlessly pushed the boy toward this goal.
With stardom on the horizon, though, Hopper melts down during a game, as all of his dad’s abusive behaviors come back to haunt him. In an attempt to save Hopper’s career, he consults with unconventional sports therapist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) and tries to get both his life and livelihood on track.
Stories of abusive and oppressive fathers aren’t exactly new, and we can find at least one in Ethan Hawke’s past. Granted, 1989’s Dead Poet’s Society wasn’t really “about” a bad dad, but that kind of character played a major role, and many films of this sort have emerged over the years.
At its heart, Phenom marries that genre with a gentler, more inspirational vibe. If you mixed 1979’s The Great Santini with 1997’s Good Will Hunting in a blender, you’d end up with Phenom.
Don’t view that as an insult, though. While Phenom may lack originality, it compensates with good storytelling and development.
Though the film starts with a post-meltdown meeting between Hopper and Dr. Mobley, it spends much of its first half with “flashbacks” to the player’s late high school experience. We see the pressures on him at school and in relationships, though the main theme relates to his connection to his father.
His awful, awful father, that is. Part of me wants to say Phenom overplays its hand in regard to Senior, as it makes him such a unilaterally terrible person that it may become unrealistic.
Then again, there are a lot of crummy people in the world, and Senior wouldn’t be the first ex-jock to take out his failures on his kid. While it might be nice to see a little more breadth to Senior, I can’t argue that he doesn’t represent existing personalities.
One can argue that Senior thinks he’s doing the right thing, of course. Isn’t there a saying that no one views themselves as evil? In Senior’s mind, he probably believes he’s equipping Hopper with the tools for success in life – never mind that he’s so uniformly horrible to everyone around him.
Hawke emerges as arguably the most interesting aspect of Phenom, partly because Senior requires him to stretch his usual on-screen personality so much. Perhaps he’s taken on similar roles that I don’t recall, but an angry, mean-spirited jerk like Senior seems to be a change for him, and I like that he essentially refuses to ask the audience to like him. The film’s third act shows a sliver of redemption for Senior, but Hawke maintains a dark side most of the time that suits the role.
I also like the movie’s subdued vibe. Phenom really does offer a character journey, one in which sports plays a background role and nothing more.
The typical movie of this sort would give us triumph and tears, with a big climax at an important game. Phenom refuses to follow that path and seems better for this choice. The semi-abrupt ending may frustrate some, but it seems appropriate for the tale on display – despite its lack of traditional “closure”, the finish appears to offer a logical point of departure for Hopper.
Phenom falters occasionally due to some too-clever imagery and at least one superfluous scene. Nonetheless, the movie provides a solid character piece that proves successful most of the time.