We’re a ways into The Phenom, Noah Buschel’s tense drama about a young pitcher named Hopper Gibson, Jr. (Johnny Simmons) who’s been busted down to the minors after a sudden case of the yips, when Hopper comes home and encounters his father, Hopper Sr. Senior is played by Ethan Hawke and has returned after being gone a while and not being missed. We have been told about him, enough to know he’s bad news, and enough to know that he’s obsessed with Hopper’s baseball career as well as his own wasted promise as an athlete.
When Hopper enters the house, we see him at the door from a vantage point in the living room, and to us, just a few inches of the TV screen are visible. Just enough to see that whoever is in the living room has a baseball game on. Hopper’s mom, who owns the house, probably wouldn’t be watching the game. So just from those couple of inches of baseball at the side of the screen, we realize the old man is home, and we know just before Hopper does. And even after we hear Dad speak, we stay with the long shot of Hopper, and it takes quite a while before the camera flips around to show this very unwelcome visitor sprawled on the couch.
(I would like to pause here and note that “Hopper Gibson” is an outstanding baseball name. Well done.)
The Phenom is full of these unexpected visual choices, particularly involving the shooting of two-person conversations with far fewer cuts back and forth than you’d usually get. Buschel and his cinematographer, Ryan Samul, use a lot of carefully composed static shots that look a lot like what Wes Anderson movies would look like if people occupied messy, lived-in spaces instead of meticulous dioramas. And once a shot is established, it tends to last, meaning we often continue to watch the side of a conversation that isn’t talking for long stretches, just watching someone listen and think and process and say nothing.
That kind of visual quietude benefits the film in part because the central performance from Johnny Simmons is so, so good. Intense and nervous and frustrated and terrified and angry all at once, Hopper wants to be able to pitch again. He’s in the care of a sports psychologist (Paul Giamatti) who’s sort of doing a gruff therapist not entirely unlike the one in Good Will Hunting, except that here, he tends to bring the focus back to baseball, because that’s what his job is. His job isn’t to fix everything in Hopper’s head; it’s to get him able to pitch. And Simmons has a way of never quite letting Hopper commit to any one conversation too much, of conveying that this kid has suffered his father’s abuse enough that he’s not decorously or charismatically traumatized as film characters often are — he’s learned how to say as little as possible.
The story has a meandering quality, moving forward and backward in time between Hopper’s current paralysis and a stretch not all that much earlier when he was being scouted in high school — the period where he seems to think the root of the trouble can be found. But the story isn’t aiming in a linear fashion toward the revelation of a single giant traumatic event; it’s just uncovering, a little bit at a time, what Hopper’s life has been like.
There are times when Buschel’s inventiveness borders on affectation; there’s an intriguing sonic effect at one point that’s just right, which is unfortunately then followed by a visual effect that seems like too much. But there are some beautiful, unexpected angles — among them, a fondness for letting Hawke drop his head in frustration or anger so we get a good shot of the way Hopper Senior’s hair is thinning through his bad-ass buzzcut.
I walked away with mixed feelings about Hawke in this movie. He doesn’t seem comfortable, the way he usually does — in fact, comfort in a character’s skin is one of the things I associate with him the most. He seems ill at ease with tattoos and that buzzcut, like the effort to be tough is … an effort. On the other hand, I’m not sure Hopper Senior is supposed to be comfortable, either. When the camera made that first flip around to show Hawke sprawled on the couch, I almost flinched — I had a little reaction like, “Uch.” Part of me thought, “Ethan Hawke does not make a convincing bully.” But then the other part thought, “Hopper Senior does not make a convincing bully.” I’m still turning that performance over in my head, quite honestly. At the very least, you can say of Hopper Senior that they’ve built a character who’s believably unwanted by his son. You look at him and believe he would literally be the last person you’d want to find on your couch at the end of the day. There’s a certain lack of vanity in Hawke’s willingness to make the guy kind of … gross.
Not everything here works: the story’s loose, looping quality can make it seem a bit too slack at times, and the structure (or lack thereof) in the ending is going to be polarizing among however many people see it. But it’s an interesting, great-looking film, and Simmons is just dynamite in it.
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.