Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Tribeca ’16: The Phenom

Baseball is a neurotic sport. When the chips are down, it is much more a test of nerves than a contest of strength or speed. Unfortunately, young mega-hyped prospect Hopper Gibson Jr.’s nerves will fail him at the worst possible time. Five wild pitches later, he starts his mandatory sessions with one of the top sports psychologists specializing in baseball. Gibson tries to take the talking cure in Noah Buschel’s The Phenom, which screens during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

It will barely take the audience five minutes to diagnose the primary source of Gibson’s insecurities. That would be his abusive father. Hopper Senior is not afraid to knock him around a little, but he really does his worst damage on an emotional level. Senior is convinced he could have been a Major League talent were it not for the distractions of prison and whatnot. As a result, he deeply resents his son’s success.

Eventually, we see through flashbacks how Gibson Sr.’s warped perspective on life poisons his son’s personal relationships. He has a bit of the old man’s paranoia, which makes his suspicious and wary around Dr. Mobley. That is a shame, because the shrink really might be able to help Gibson, Jr.

Phenom is a strange baseball film, because it is clearly very conversant in the recent history of the game, but there is virtual no in-game action. Players go through trials like that kind Gibson wrestles with all the time. (Its even more awkward when second basemen come down with the Steve Sax curse.) This is real drama and the stakes are high.

Yet, Buschel keeps the tone surprisingly understated, mostly stringing together a series of one-on-one confrontations. Playing against his Linklater type, Ethan Hawke is shockingly ferocious as Gibson Sr. You can practically see the negative energy radiate off him. Likewise, Paul Giamatti provides the film’s razor-sharp moral center as Dr. Mobley, in what might be the best on-screen shrink performance since Mathieu Almaric in Jimmy P. He also provides an apostolic link to major league baseball through the Giamatti family. For further off-the-field cred, Paul Adelstein rocks his too-brief appearance as Gibson’s agent, transparently inspired by Scott Boras. Unfortunately, Johnny Simmons is just too sullen and withdrawn for us to fully relate to, which is a bit of a problem, since he is in every scene.

Let’s face it, there is just a desperate shortage young twentysomething male actors in Hollywood who can carry a film. Fortunately, Buschel surrounds Simmons with such talented supporting players (like Frank Wood and Meg Gibson, who make a strong impression in their scene as his long-suffering high school girlfriend’s parents), they are able to pull him through and take some of the pressure off. Regardless, real sports fans will appreciate his largely cliché-free narrative, which ends long before the “big game.” Recommended for those who appreciate moodier baseball films, like Fear Strikes Out and Bang the Drum Slowly, The Phenom screens again tonight (4/20) and Friday (4/22), as part of this year’s Tribeca.