Not since Kevin Smith shared the story of Dante Hicks and Randall Graves in Clerks has the use of a static camera work been as effective or revealing as it is in Noah Buschel’s latest drama, The Phenom. Ripe with dialogue and performances that will be remembered long after the title becomes the fodder of movie trivia games, this coming-of-age sports film shines a light on the world of athletics that audiences have seen many times before, yet with just enough spice to feel new once more.
What is the price of greatness? Can such a thing be measured, and if so, what are the units of measurement one would use? Does the promise of financial gain in the long run outweigh the value of formative life experiences that must be skipped or underplayed in pursuit of something akin to fame? These are questions asked by The Phenom, which follows a once fast-rising pitcher, Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), who has recently lost his spark. The film jumps between scenes of Hopper’s current efforts to clear his mind with the aide of an industry-renowned psychologist (Paul Giamatti), and sequences from Hopper’s time with his demanding drunk felon of a father (Ethan Hawke), to paint a portrait of a twenty-something who has been so busy focusing on his so-called goals that he has forgotten why he started down his chosen path in life altogether.
As the story unfolds and audiences come to understand the sad and lonely road Hopper has traveled on his way to stalling out in the minors, it’s hard not to feel that Hopper’s career is a reflection of the film he exists within. The promise of a film like The Phenom is a portrait of an athlete—based on a real individual or completely fictional—that the world has never seen before. While Hopper is indeed an original creation, his demeanor and the way his life has begun to unravel is built atop a familiar plot of land in the world of sports cinema. Once again audiences watch a talented person grapple with the origin of their talent and the costs it carries in search of some greater meaning to the madness of life. It’s a metaphor, like all things sports, and it’s one we have definitely seen before. It has nothing new to say in terms of an ending, but the crisp dialogue provided by Buschel does make for an engaging watch.
Buschel’s other success with this film is that it serves as a platform to display three amazing performances whose strengths help to keep the film afloat as the narrative begins to wear thin. Simmons in particular has a rare chance to shine that finds him appearing in nearly every scene, conveying unyielding youthful confidence in one moment and losing himself in the uncertainty of adulthood the next. Tasked with performing between two of the best veteran actors working today, Simmons finds a way to steal scenes more often than not. The promise showcased during his smaller turns in Stanford Prison Experiment and Perks Of Being A Wallflower has finally found an opportunity to reveal itself in full, and it’s exhilarating to see him own the challenges a character like Hopper presents.
This isn’t to say Ethan Hawke and Paul Giamatti do not deliver as well. Both men possess the rare ability to lose themselves in every role, and here they are offered two great opportunities to shine. Hawke is an alcoholic troublemaker who never learned to face his own demons. Giamatti is a man with answers for everyone except himself. Neither role is all that original on the page, but each turn is played to perfection with added flair thanks to the talent on screen.
Buschel’s decision to move the camera as little as possible does give The Phenom a very distinct and often picturesque quality that makes even the weakest moments roll by like a warm summer breeze. In a time when most directors feel their films are made in the editing bay, Buschel seems to believe they are created moment-to-moment by the people paid to bring them to life with their presence, mind, and voice. With a cast as strong as the one The Phenom contains, it’s not hard to understand why one might have faith in this approach, and fortunately for Buschel it proves to make the all-too-familiar engaging all over again. You may never need to see The Phenom again, but I’d be lying if I said it was something you should skip.