The Phenom: Small film with a lot to say
Summer movies don’t always have a lot to say. While they may visually excite, explode and explore, few rely on dialogue for the journey. Perhaps the summer search for escape encourages filmmakers to show instead of tell. Or, as moviegoers, maybe we lower our expectations for how a movie can make us think. Is dialogue a winter sensation?
No matter the season, the new film The Phenom would be an oddity at the movies. This is a story about baseball with few scenes that show people playing baseball. Instead the film examines family dynamics with, interestingly, few of those standard confrontations that screenwriters usually love to write. The movie – unlike what we may see this summer – makes us read between the lines of its screenplay to make up our minds about what it’s trying to say. And, even though it gets talky at times, the movie has a lot to share. I liked it.
Hopper, played by Johnny Simmons, is a baseball player with a problem. As he confesses to a sports psychologist – played, no surprise, by Paul Giamatti, who continues to play father figures in films – he can’t shake the blues when pitching in the major leagues. We soon flash back, as such films do, to the athlete’s star years in high school. We learn that Hopper doesn’t like to study, loves his mother and fears his father, an undisciplined, violent man played with relish by Ethan Hawke. As these characters talk through their relationships over the next 90 minutes, we see how parents shape the chapters for a child’s narrative. As we raise our kids we set their expectations for what life can be and their fears for what life may become. And, if we fail to help them establish balance, we can challenge our children, more than we may know, to search for their own rhythm.
The Phenom is a movie about this rhythm, between a man and his sport, a man and his father, a man and himself. While little actually happens on screen, much happens in the hearts of the characters, thanks to the honesty and clarity of screenwriter/director Noah Buschel’s words and the sensitivity of his direction. Buschel’s unique visual sense gives the film an introspective look. Rather than, for example, conventionally shoot and edit a conversation by shifting from one person to the other, he focuses his camera on one person so we can study all the reactions. He freely lets his camera pull back to show an entire setting so, when Hopper takes his girlfriend to a diner, we listen to most of the chat without knowing where they sit because the camera shows the entire space. This approach keeps the movie moving.
Of course, The Phenom might benefit from a few more visual examples of why this athlete is worth all the chatter. But, with independent films, we learn to admire the creativity that budget limitations inspire. In a summer filled with noisy movies, The Phenom makes us happy that independent moviemakers search for ways to be heard. It can feel good to listen.
See you at the movies.
- Content: Medium. This look at a young man’s challenges with his sport and family reveals quite a bit about the lessons parents teach.
- Entertainment: Medium. Because the movie talks a lot, without the sequences found in most films about baseball, its 90-minute running time can feel long.
- Message: Medium. While the movie comments on many issues – from fear to disappointment to anger – it’s actually about a young man’s search for himself.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to talk with our older children about how we support their dreams is worthwhile.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older children, take time for a conversation about how they see their lives.
(The Phenom is not rated; the film includes language, implied violence, alcohol use, and sexual situations. It runs 90 minutes. The film is available On Demand and online streaming as well as in theaters in New York City.)
3.5 Popcorn Buckets on the Reel Dad’s scale.
The Reel Dad Salutes Baseball Movies
As The Phenom reminds us, movies about baseball can be about a lot more than baseball. And the best ones can use baseball as a way to illustrate other issues. Take a look at some favorite films that use this game to frame many stories.
Field of Dreams (1989)
This classic baseball tale uses the game to explore the reasons for disconnection between fathers and sons. We find ourselves in the magical experience this sport creates as we begin to understand why we look for fantasies to hide painful truths. While the specifics of what happens in the Iowa cornfields may be difficult to logically accept, the emotional feelings they address are timeless. Fathers and sons crave each other’s attention even if they don’t know how to express the emotions. Some languages are difficult to learn.
This gem of a film from director Bennett Miller is actually less about the sport of baseball than a character study of a man trying to overcome his demons. This man could be in any business, facing any crisis that resurrects fears of failure from his youth. While his world sits inside a baseball stadium offers the visuals we recognize, his challenge is universal. Each of us, at some point, must confront the remnants of our disappointments. For this man, the baggage he carries happens to include a baseball bat.
Eight Men Out (1988)
Few scandals in the history of sport are as legendary as the “Black Sox” scandal of the Chicago White Sox in 1919. In a baseball world different from today, players on teams – no matter their abilities – were paid low amounts. Some could not make ends meet to continue to play no matter their passion or skill. And, against their better judgment, some accepted bribes to “throw” the World Series of that year while others find the temptation too sordid to pursue putting the team at odds and the series outcome in question.
Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Movies help us get to know people from other times who demonstrate the kind of courage that we need to hear about today. On its surface, Pride of the Yankees could be viewed as a “bio pic” from Hollywood, designed to pay tribute to a popular hero. But baseball player Lou Gehrig deserved more than the standard treatment. The film explores this great athlete’s personal journey as he confronts the devastating impact of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the body.
The Natural (1994)
If we remember Field of Dreams for how it explores how mystical baseball can be, the movie adaptation of The Natural makes us believe in the magic of the sport. Robert Redford is at his most engaging and human as an over-the-hill baseball player who simply wants one more chance to fulfill the potential that was so rudely taken away from him. He simply knows that the nation where he plays needs to believe in the sport for which he plays. Otherwise, who else will all those kids hanging around the ball park have to believe in?
The Rookie (2002)
The power of this sport to fuel ambitious dreams comes to life in this inspirational tale of a man who is far too old to be competitive as a major league player but far too determined to let a silly thing called age to get in his way. Dennis Quaid is pitch perfect as a man from West Texas who spent years trying to deny his ambition until he reached, in his life, a seventh-inning stretch that convinced him there’s no time like today to make dreams come true.
Yes, The Phenom makes us want to watch every baseball movie we can. And that may take a while.
See you at the movies.