Much like its main character, The Phenom is on the verge of greatness. At every corner, you can feel it’s about five minutes away from saying something truly profound. But by the time the movie ends, you realize that it never really said anything at all.
This is important because without saying anything, there is no moment. And with no moment, there is nothing to center the script. And without a centered and focused script, the film meanders, stuck between boring and interesting.
The movie isn’t even lacking a sense of structure, it’s lacking a real connection. The story opens on rookie pitcher Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) who is undergoing therapy. It is revealed that Hopper was having a fantastic rookie season before becoming unable to focus and throwing a series of wild pitches. In high school, he was a hot commodity after being relentlessly pushed by his abusive father (Ethan Hawke). He is sent to Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), who hopes to get Hopper out of his funk in time for the playoffs.
As much as it sounds like a mediocre combination of Good Will Hunting (1998) and Rookie of the Year (1993), stylistically it separates itself from those labels and embraces its existence as a mediocre indie film. The cinematography really exemplifies this with shots that constantly feel too empty and too ‘digital’. Shot on a RED camera and very proud of it (with cinematography by Ryan Samul), there’s nothing inherently wrong with the way the film looks, but it all feels too staged and unnatural.
On the flip side of this, writer/director Noah Buschel utilizes his small budget to create a unique style. Most scenes in the film are only shot from one or maybe two angles, with very few cuts in between. The result of this is a tone that goes from staged and unnatural to lonely and isolated. It’s an interesting choice that showcases a lot of potential for Buschel, but it also makes the movie feel very, very small.
Additionally, this style also forces a lot of the dialogue to be delivered off-camera. Unfortunately, these lines almost never sync the way they feel like they should, and the film is left with some audio that seems incredibly amateurish. I don’t know how simple this would have been to fix or prevent, but it certainly prevents the audience from getting lost in the movie.
At least the film showcases some great performances for the audience to ruminate on. The whole movie centers around Johnny Simmons, and he’s probably the perfect actor to carry the film. A Hollywood veteran, Simmons has been sitting right next to the spotlight for years. Often in unmemorable or underdeveloped supporting roles, he’s been holding ground in films such as Hotel for Dogs (2009), Scott Pilgrim versus the World (2010) and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012). My favorite example is that he played Andrew Neiman in the Whiplash (2013) short film before being replaced by Miles Teller for the feature length version. Leading the movie for once, Simmons plays Hopper with unsuspecting grace. It also doesn’t hurt that he has Hawke and Giamatti to back him up, who both do fine jobs, expectedly.
Ultimately, The Phenom is watchable, but it doesn’t seem to have any build. It’s a movie built on quiet moments, but these quiet moments never lead to anything truly cohesive. They do make for an interesting glimpse into the life, but the promise of a character study is never fulfilled. Unlike its main character, it never throws any wild pitches, but it also never really gets on the mound. It feels like it’s almost a movie that’s ready to wow the world, but right now it’s just stuck in the minor leagues.