During a scene in mindboggling sports drama The Phenom, young Hopper (Johnny Simmons) tells Dorothy (Sophie Kennedy Clark)—over an oppressively grim trio of wind, wind chimes and crickets—that, despite his mother’s belief he has ADD, he is able to focus on the pitcher’s mound by forgetting everything else. As the insects grow louder, the two stare at one another for almost 20 whole seconds before kissing and rubbing their foreheads together for another 20 seconds. Hopper has just praised Dorothy because she’s “got all the Chinese kids beat” and will be class valedictorian. His casual racism, her self-deprecating “I’m just good at studying,” and the script’s willingness to invoke disability to create vocational irony are all pretty romantic, I guess.
Not too romantic, mind you. Hopper’s high school baseball coach lauds “good girl” Dorothy by contrasting her with the unseen Doreen, Hopper’s previous SO. Coach slut shames the mascara-wearing Doreen and explicitly points out that both names start with “D” (and therefore “Dor”), just in case you missed that clever writing trick. He then explains a whole metaphor about Dorothy’s goodness and Doreen’s wicked penchant for makeup, twice. First, he offers a subtextual glut of alliteration and rhyming, including “math,” “class” and “mascara,” and asserts that makeup stopped Doreen from doing algebra. Second, he delivers a priceless couplet that literally explains the figurative and—surprise!—it turns out his sexism was just a Trojan Horse for the movie’s main theme: “Anybody who puts on that kind of mask, they unintentionally expose themselves.”
I have so many questions about The Phenom. Why is Coach’s casual sexism, at which Hopper just goofily smiles, relevant? If your whole point is to set up a moment for an irrelevant character to explicitly state the theme of your film, why is the only way to get there to have him discuss the makeup habits of a teenaged girl who never appears on screen? Why do Dorothy’s parents, while concocting the thin patina of class that marks the Dor-Hopper relationship, confuse socialism and Marxism as if they’re synonyms, right before Hopper calls them “so smart”? Why does Hopper dismiss Dorothy as “a cute little oddball that I pass my time with” in response to her concern that he always sits with his back to a wall? I mean, her hat is perched too high on her head, and she does randomly talk about Harry Potter, but still. Why does his response suggest that baseball scouts are basically wetworkers? Why do parts of this script seem like a series of unfinished ideas scrawled on cocktail napkins while other parts seem like the victims of thoughtfulness and editing? Why is that uneasiness echoed in the sound, which fluctuates between innocuous fluttering and ensiferan intrusiveness? Or in the visuals, which juxtapose gorgeously framed portraits with oddly paced cuts and strange angles?
Somewhere around the arrival of Hopper’s father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke), the movie starts to make more sense. A possible, cynical explanation is that writer-director Noah Buschel really wanted to bring his A game for Hawke and Paul Giamatti, as sports psychologist Dr. Mobley. A slightly more charitable explanation is that the best parts of The Phenom are those that most resemble other, better sports films. Maybe certain combinations of actors just fared better at elevating a fairly pedestrian script.
I’m not entirely sure what or who The Phenom wants me to believe. The basic frame of the film is this: After an off game scares Hopper’s major league team management, he’s benched and sent to sessions with Mobley. We get revelations about Hopper’s character during these sessions, but also in flashbacks. Some of Hopper’s erratic actions make more sense once it becomes clear that the presence of his abusive father causes him to act out. This is almost certainly why he turns on Dorothy, for one. But while it is possible that all of these flashback scenes are “contained” inside Hopper’s sessions with Mobley, the relationship between the two isn’t clear, nor is the relationship of either thread with present-day events that happen to Hopper during his exile in the minor leagues. For example, midway through the film a tense situation leaves Hopper emasculated. Later, when he attempts to mend fences with Dorothy, she reads him the #masculinitysofragile riot act and indicts Hopper Sr.’s bullshit man algebra. Hopper Sr. himself is so incapable of not asserting his own “manhood” that he keeps getting arrested and thrown back in jail. None of this really comes up in therapy, so… is Hopper supposed to be more of a man?
In the broadest sense, I do think The Phenom is an attempt to indict hegemonic masculinity, and in particular Hopper Sr.’s toxic inability to separate manhood from aggression. But the problem is threefold: The script isn’t sharp enough to cleanly make this argument, the script is filled with other -isms that aren’t challenged in the same fashion, which confuses the point, and Hawke’s performance as Hopper Sr. is far more compelling and engaging than some of his rival voices. This isn’t Hawke’s finest performance, but he certainly makes it difficult to see Hopper Sr. as the straw man all the other characters describe.
Certain developments during the film’s conclusion also suggest an ambivalence about his role in Hopper’s yips. Mobley concludes that Hopper needs baseball to be fun again, but solving baseball stress seems to be as much about helping his mother and impressing Dorothy’s parents and avoiding baseball scouts as it is dear old dad. And while it’s clear that nobody else seems to think Hopper Sr. helped Hopper achieve his dreams, maybe Hopper does? That’s unclear. So what are we left with? The hollow and oft repeated notion that being your own man will also allow you to be a good man? The oh-so-scandalous secret that bullies are actually insecure, just like Coach’s mask metaphor? The Phenom has some good scenes and performances, but there are too many annoying things and too little point.
Director: Noah Buschel
Writer: Noah Buschel
Starring: Johnny Simmons, Yul Vazquez, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Paul Giamatti, Ethan Hawke
Release Date: June 24, 2016