Director: Noah Buschel
Stars: Johnny Simmons, Ethan Hawke
3 (out of 5) Globes
The director Noah Buschel is a special kind of indie minimalist. He doesn’t hide the fact that his movies cost very little money. In “Glass Chin,” a neo-noir about boxing, he played a climactic fight entirely inside a cab, the fight playing on the radio, a single shot staring in close-up at star Corey Stoll. That’s the kind of ingenuity seen in classic no-budget noirs or Val Lewton films, where the lack of money inspires creative directors to embrace rather than badly conceal the limited resources, finding inspiration in confinement.
“The Phenom” is a baseball movie, but there’s only one scene on a diamond, and all of the traditional fare — the big games, the big crowds, even the high-tempered locker room shout-fests — are nowhere to be found. It tells of Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons), a young, hot pitcher whose dalliance in the big leagues has been brief, leading to him being busted back down to the minors. He has a cuddly therapist (Paul Giamatti) to hear his woes, which tend to involve a domineering and no-good father (Ethan Hawke), who pushed him one minute, skipped town for months or longer the next.
It sounds like an old, creaky baseball melodrama from half a century ago. But Buschel twists and turns it into his own thing. The tone isn’t serious; it’s almost a comedy, even if there are few jokes. The structure hops all over the timeline, and is always down for a rich and strange digression that may seem to have little to do with its therapy narrative. Just as the film seems to be winding down, it gets mired in a very entertaining “Gone Girl”-ish bit involving road motel con artists.
In fact, therapy sessions are thin on the ground, even given a name like Giamatti. Hawke, as the derelict dad, refuses to make like a creaky cliche, imparting his louse and tyrant with a big, mischievous smile that barely drops even when dispensing verbal and mental abuse. Hopper isn't an anguished emo kid destined to break down into a ball of tears; Simmons gives him a clipped, emotionally distant precision. He's a perfect fit for a movie that likes to bang out its scenes in one or two efficient compositions that make arresting use of the widescreen frame and off-screen action. “The Phenom” can be too small and too un-focused, but its flaws are part of its singular charm. Buschel might be one of indies’ most interesting filmmakers, all the moreso because he doesn’t belong to any easily-promotable group or even genre.