Usually films revolving around patient-psychiatrist relationships climax with a shouting match. The patient, weary enough to let their emotional guard down, lashes out. Sometimes it’s toward the psychiatrist. Sometimes it’s toward themselves. And like a fencer spotting an opening, the psychiatrist goes in for the kill, hitting just the right nerve, finally achieving a breakthrough. But there are no such theatrics in Noah Buschel’s superb film The Phenom. When the breakthrough finally comes, the two barely raise their voices. The patient, star baseball pitcher Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), cannot raise his voice. His abusive father Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke) brainwashed him into thinking that displays of emotion were weakness. The psychiatrist, Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), will not raise his voice. Early in his career he lost a high-profile patient to suicide. It’s haunted him, made him more careful, more reserved. Yet the breakthrough still comes. Deceptively quiet, unexpectedly still, Noah Buschel’s The Phenom beckons with a firm power.
The film is a quest for healing. After securing a spot on a professional team right out of high school, Gibson’s lost his edge. After infamously throwing five wild pitches in one inning (on national television, no less), he was ordered to visit Dr. Mobley, a sports psychologist. The film is told through extensive flashbacks in-between sessions, reaching back toward his devastating past dominated by his father. Hopper Sr. is one of the most horrific monsters I’ve encountered in recent cinema. Imagine if Mo’Nique’s Mary from Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009) was a violent drunk and ex-con. There isn’t a thing Gibson can do, not a thing he can say that Hopper Sr. doesn’t seize upon as fodder to attack and humiliate him. If he shows any emotion on the field (and he considers all of life “the field”) he gets beaten and forced to do suicides in the drive-way at night. Any pride toward his exceptional gifts are met with withering scorn. Any absences of pride are met with insults and demands for appreciation for his “training.” Like a slasher killer, he has a nearly supernatural power to appear when Gibson is at his weakest…or his strongest.
Throughout the film Buschel demonstrates a superb handling of cinematic space, isolating Gibson in the nooks and crannies of his gigantic frames. Much of the dialogue takes place offscreen, the camera fixed stoically on Gibson as he listens or ignores. In a way the film reminds me of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar (2008), the story of a Dominican pitcher who comes to the States to play professional baseball. Both films situate their characters as outsiders trapped on the periphery of success and society. But if Sugar is a metaphor for the isolations and uncertainties of the immigrant experience, The Phenom is about internal barriers, internal defenses stacked so high they blot out the sky.
Though Simmons and Giamatti turn in admirable performances, they are dwarfed by Hawke. I can’t help feeling sorry for the man: what might be his greatest performance may be doomed for VOD purgatory. It reminds me of Ten Thousand Saints (2015), another limited release film he helped carry. Though he has gained some fanfare recently for his collaborations with Richard Linklater, particularly the 12-years-in-the-making opus Boyhood (2014), he remains crucially under-appreciated in the public eye. Maybe his upcoming appearance in the remake of The Magnificent Seven will fix that. We can only hope so.