From there we go back to Hopper's high school days to see the roots of his mental outlook. Buschel takes us forward and back in time throughout his film's fractured narrative timeline. Pay attention, because it's hard to discern at times whether we're watching Hopper in high school, as a minor leaguer, or in the present day. As excellent as Simmons is, he looks identical in the various time periods. Hopper and Mobley engage in a patient/doctor relationship that recalls, at times, Good Will Hunting. Mobley has his own past shortcomings to deal with, adding considerable depth to the give-and-take between he and the struggling young pitcher.
The heart of The Phenom—and of Hopper as a character—lies in his troubled relationship with his abusive, overbearing, ne'er do well father. Hopper Sr. is portrayed by Ethan Hawke, who is simply astounding. The elder Hopper has been in and out of jail for dealing drugs and he doesn't appear to see anything especially wrong with his behavior. Senior was a bit of a phenom himself, at least in high school. Hopper's coach remembers the old man well. Even though his potential was completely squandered, he believes he's given Junior all his ability. Hawke manages to transcend his character's outward gruffness and violent outbursts to find a damaged soul attempting to connect with his son. Simmons generally underplays (to good effect) throughout, but he wisely cedes the screen to Hawke who delivers award-worthy work.
The Phenom isn't a conventional sports movie by any means. It's methodically paced and features startlingly little on-field action. It's also not your standard-issue direct-to-video release. Director Noah Buschel is the real deal, a filmmaker interested in character and nuance who doesn't mind bucking expectations. Visual flourishes abound, including an irising effect (reminiscent of something out of a silent film) during a game that helps us understand the focus issues Hopper experiences. Soundtrack elements are manipulated (including riding music levels or diegetic sound effects, like a police siren, unnaturally high) to help convey characters' points of view. The Phenom, with its heart rooted firmly in the performances by Simmons, Giamatti, and especially Hawke, will stay with you.