Anyone expecting the rah-rah adrenaline rush usually associated with baseball movies from “The Phenom” will be grievously disappointed: this is no “Natural,” and indeed there’s remarkably little action on the diamond at all. Instead writer-director Noah Buschel’s film is a sober, slow-moving tale of a rookie pitcher trying, with the aid of a dedicated psychologist, to come to terms with the causes behind a disastrous recent slump. While it’s nice to encounter a sports movie that diverges from formula, however, this one is so dilatory, and its revelations so obvious, that it might leave you longing for some old-fashioned genre clichés.
Johnny Simmons, in a performance so restrained that he seems comatose at times, stars as Hopper Gibson Jr., a Florida high school star whose coach (Yul Vazquez) encourages him to shake off his emotional lethargy. That advice, however, conflicts with the training Hopper received from his hard-driving father Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who insisted that he remain impassive on the mound. Of course, dad was, as both the coach and young Hopper’s English teacher remind him, no great shakes as a student, and though a talented ball player himself, either left or was booted off the team in his day because he was trouble. Since then the old man has apparently been in and out of jail, coming home only rarely to belittle his son’s talents while berating him to train more diligently.
Young Hopper is also having a bit of difficulty with his girlfriend Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark), a pretty blonde who finds his attitude toward dealing with the world—expecting that everybody is essentially out for himself—not only unpleasant but somewhat insulting.
Given all that, it’s hardly much of a surprise that the young man wilts under the pressure of expectations and the glare of the media spotlight, throwing a succession of wild pitches in a nationally-televised game. His team sends him back to the minors and places him in the care of Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), a renowned expert in the field whose gentle approach gradually coaxes pertinent admissions from Hopper—although, as it turns out, he has some personal skeletons in his closet himself, the most important involving the fate of another promising player he was counseling.
One waits in vain for “The Phenom” to spring any surprises. Buschel’s tactic—which juxtaposes the sessions between Gibson and Mobley with flashbacks to Hopper’s high school years and to the boy’s passionate run-ins with his volatile father, or to his announcement that with his signing bonus he’s bought his mother (Alison Elliott) a new house—and the frankly ponderous pace he imposes on the material certainly make the point of the story crushingly clear from almost the first frame: bullying Hopper Sr. might have instilled in his son some genuine skill at the game, but in the process he also drained from the boy any sense of joy in playing. When Mobley prods Hopper to realize that to resolve his current slump, he simply has to recover the childish enjoyment he once felt while pitching in the sandlot with his six-year old pals, one is prompted to ask: is that all there is? And the answer is yes.
There is, to be sure, some compensation in the lead performances. Simmons’ reticence has a one-note quality, but also a degree of soulfulness that’s often affecting. Hawke, playing a father who’s the diametric opposite of the one he undertook in “Boyhood,” is positively ferocious (showing a hint of vulnerability only in a late scene in which his son visits him in prison, after he’s been convicted of drug-running), while Giamatti, here essaying a therapist equally different from the ravenous one he played in “Love & Mercy,” does the aw-shucks routine that’s the other side of his bag of tricks with practiced aplomb.
There are some welcome digressions from the main plot thrust as well. A dinner sequence featuring Meg Gibson and Frank Wood as Dorothy’s left-leaning parents is a standout, and Hopper’s on-the-road motel dalliance with a free-spirited young woman (Louisa Krause) he meets at the pool has a peculiar tang. On the other hand, a session between the boy and his agent (Scott Borwitz), who arrives on the scene in a cape and top hat that initially suggest some sort of dream sequence, doesn’t quite work. On the technical side all is reasonably good, with solid work from cinematographer Ryan Samul. The employment of a languidly-played movement from a Mozart piano sonata as the central element of Aleks de Carvalho’s score is an oddly appropriate aural counterpart to Buschel’s very deliberate images.
Despite its admitted virtues, however, in the end “The Phenom” comes across rather like a more ambitious variant of a high-minded after-school special (complete with “Great Gatsby” references–check out that billboard), and when it’s over, only Hawke’s high-pitched turn (the pun is intentional) is likely to stay with you.