The Phenom

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Hopper Jr. (Johnny Simmons) , Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke). After serving time in prison, Hopper Sr. makes an unsolicited visit to his son offering his theory on why young Hopper is having difficulty on the pitcher's mound.
"Simmons is generally convincing but it's difficult for him to combine this with holding centre stage, especially in scenes alongside Ethan Hawke, who is cast against type as a low rent Tyler Durden and clearly enjoying every minute of it."

When one watches a lot of independent films, one sees a lot of bright young talents come and go. Most of them fizzle out or drift off into the world of TV movies or theatre. Some find themselves overwhelmed by sudden fame. Coping with that isn't easy, and here young star Johnny Simmons explores the same phenomenon in another sector, as a brilliant baseball pitcher trying to keep himself together and determine his own identity in the face of tremendous pressures.

Unlike many of those young stars, the pitcher - Hopper Gibson - is aware of his own fragility. He explores his problems in therapy sessions. It's a cheesy device, made more so by the choice of Paul Giamatti to ply the therapist, as he's taken on roles like this too often and it's hard to see him as a unique character - but it serves to help writer/director Noah Buschel link together the strands of an otherwise wayward narrative. In his efforts to paint a holistic portrait, Buschel has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew, but his boldness holds some promise. The Phenom has the feel of a filmmaker finding his balance, testing his limits, ready to create something stronger.

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What makes this film interesting - and very different from the average sporting drama - is that it challenges established ideas of what it means to be strong. Hopper is trying to find his balance too, but he realises that success can't be achieved simply through forcefulness. Indeed, he' beginning to doubt all the advice he's ever received, including his therapist's, and struggling to find a healthy middle ground between destructive cynicism and letting himself be pushed around. In fact, most of the people around him seem to have his best interests at heart - or think they do - but they have very different ideas.

Carrying the viewer along through this difficult process of personal development would be a challenge for any young actor. Simmons is generally convincing but it's difficult for him to combine this with holding centre stage, especially in scenes alongside Ethan Hawke, who is cast against type as a low rent Tyler Durden and clearly enjoying every minute of it. Compelling as he is to watch, however, Hawke's character is clearly a nightmarish presence iin the young man's life, the father whose approach to nurturing his talent was to punish him for showing emotion. Buschel tries to draw out a critique of masculinity from this but it's distorted because Hawke is the most watchable person in the film.

The other highlight of the film is Sophie Kennedy Clark, who builds on the promise she showed in films like Stonehearst Asylum and The Danish Girl to make a lot out of her small and often unflattering role as Hopper's girlfriend. It's largely due to her input that we are able to believe anyone would want to be close to this difficult young man, but the film will doubtless find more resonance with teenagers who find his frustration immediately sympathetic. With few such contemplative films aimed at that age group, The Phenom has something to commend it.

Reviewed on: 01 Jul 2016
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The Phenom packshot
A young baseball pitcher struggles to cope with success.

Festivals:

Tribeca 2016

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