Escaping the Judge: The Phenom (2016) 

RLJ Entertainment

Hopper Gibson has a problem. We open on a close-up of a young man dressed in a white and blue baseball uniform, perspiring under the glaring stadium light. The crowd’s clapping forms a pulsing, cacophonous din. He takes off his cap and wipes at the rivulets of sweat running down his face. The moment freezes, the pitcher trapped in motion like a hunted deer spotting the glint of a rifle scope. We move elsewhere, outside the moment. The young pitcher stares past the lens, his eyes dark, already failing. 

“So what happened?” asks a calm, mellifluous voice. It becomes apparent that the scene is already one in retrospective: the image is from a match replay, caught in the moment before catastrophe. Sports psychologist Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti) sits in his office with Hopper (Johnny Simmons), the rookie in question. They are in the process of going over old ground. No hammering of the crowd or slap of the ball. Just two men sitting in a room watching a tape, surrounded by silence and the resounding failure before them. There is nothing to be done to stop the player onscreen from tanking his promising major league career with five wild pitches; it has already happened. Here is a machine that has suddenly, inexplicably, stopped working. 

It is up to the Hopper in front of us to find out why. 


The Phenom is a sports film for people, like me, who don’t enjoy sports films. 

It’s not that I don’t enjoy sports; it’s simply that I never bought into the rabid deification of individuals or teams and the wholly obscene money-driven machinery of success. Depictions of sports rarely excite me. The genre is built on a predictable formula of wins and losses. Life here, if not anywhere else, can be neatly divided into those categories, and the underlying point—if cultural osmosis is to believed—is that if you enact a series of training montages backed by triumphant ‘80s rock, you, too, can definitively prove that you’re the best around, and nothing’s ever going to take you down. Or something to that effect. The all-American dream of guts and hard-earned glory reigns triumphant, regardless of whether the victory is ultimately won. 

On paper, The Phenom is yet another link in a long chain of genre stories focusing on the enduring underdog who must, through the help of a grizzled old mentor, overcome their weaknesses/insurmountable odds/poor background/lack of support to become the best in their field. This field may or may not be a field of dreams. You would be excused for thinking that’s the case from watching the film’s theatrical trailer, which promises exactly that. A rhythmic slapping, like a ball hitting a catcher’s mitt, mingles with the chanting of the crowd to build a thundering, tense crescendo in the vein of many a high-wire drama or action film. Here is the nerve-racking story of a young prodigy pushed to perform great things, it promises, following in the footsteps of Black Swan or Whiplash—will our beleaguered hero step up to the plate and reach his full potential? 

The trailer horribly misrepresents everything about the film it aims to promote. Even the font, a smooth, bold sans serif, strikes me as an affronting choice. Five minutes into The Phenom, any viewer will be able to tell that high-octane sporting drama it decidedly is not. Perhaps they get up from their seats or change channels. Or perhaps, like me, they are surprised by a film of such deliberate, gentle design that they open up and let the experience resonate through them, quavering and true, on its own terms. Sometimes you find yourself on the same note. Sometimes you find yourself unexpectedly moved by the time the credits roll, despite yourself. 


The opening conversation between Hopper and Mobley lasts for close to five minutes. Hopper’s focus is off. He confesses he has trouble sleeping and, when he does sleep, his dreams are bad. His pitching is derailed. He doesn’t remember things very well. Some things he remembers in clear, cut-glass detail. 

“Memory is a funny business,” Mobley tells him. “And sometimes we fog over the past, because of damage. You know, like in the old movies when they put Vaseline on the camera lens to make the faces prettier and softer, you know?” It is clear, despite Hopper’s protestation, that there is something cracking behind his withdrawn, protective façade. It’s hard to admit. The rapport between Mobley and his patient hides the raw desperation behind Hopper’s eyes: he needs to find a solution, if only so he can finally sleep at night. We cut to title. 

If there was any question about the tone of the film unfolding before us, the opening credits put the matter to rest. Thin, looping handwritten names appear over the static pink floral wallpaper backdrop—not a blocky sans serif in sight—and under it all, the achingly delicate rendition of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331, as interpreted by 20th-century master pianist Glenn Gould. A low, ethereally disembodied voice hums along. This is clearly not the fast-paced, tense sports drama the theatrical trailer advertised, but something closer to reflective restraint.

From here, time jumps, moving among scenes of the fallout from Hopper’s disastrous match, his final year in high school, and his frustration in the minor league interspersed with discussions in Mobley’s office. It’s easy to see why the story of a young man talking with his therapist might not sound like a typical, crowd-pleasing sports drama: it’s not. Much of the action takes place off the pitch. If anything, Hopper is a boxer exhausted by the constant battle with his opponent. (Everyone. And always himself.) He can’t remember what it’s like to lower his guard and admit to his own vulnerability; he has internalized one of the many rules drilled into him by his controlling ex-con father, Hopper Sr. (Ethan Hawke): “Never show emotion on the mound.” 

Hopper is never off the mound. 


Simmons plays Hopper with a carefully bricked-up vulnerability, often flat and self-hating, frozen by his inability to measure up to the unreachable standards placed on him by his contract, his sponsors, his father. It’s a shock to discover how vulnerable you really are. No level of dry cynicism, the stone-faced affect that forswears weakness, can protect him. He has been taught all his life that it will. Yet no matter how closed-off he tries to be, his father’s voice will flare up in anger. The ball will spin out of his control.

While Hopper’s troubling performance issue is never properly diagnosed (“This is a passing thing for you. And you give it a name, it might wanna stick around”), it’s clear he is suffering from “the yips”—a condition also known by the moniker “Steve Blass disease.” Blass, ace pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, helped defeat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1971 World Series. In early 1973, he suffered an unexplained, debilitating loss of accuracy that saw an unprecedented and embarrassing decline of his earned run average, and presaged his demotion to the minor league. Two years later, he retired from the sport entirely. Similarly, Rick Ankiel—on whose memoir, The Phenomenon: Pressure, The Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life, Hopper’s struggles are loosely based—threw five wild pitches playing for the Cardinals in Game One of the National League Division Series in 2000. His pitching continued to deteriorate. Unlike Blass, Ankiel’s poor performance was not a death knell: he changed positions, eventually returning to the majors in 2007 as an outfielder. 

It’s unclear whether Hopper’s path is destined for failure or comeback, but the stakes remain high. The suicide of major league pitcher Howard Glass (a clear nudge to Blass), who, years previously, suffered the same loss of control, hangs over Hopper’s head. Hopper wonders if “maybe there’s a time-bomb ticking…I guess I was one. And I didn’t even know it.” The delicate fracturing of a promising career, his teetering sense of self, the fabric of his future—they all hang in the balance. Who is he without a 100-mile-an-hour fastball? It is up to the gentle, questioning care of his mental coach to access the root of Hopper’s walled-off anxieties, in the hopes of alleviating the crushing pressure he finds himself under. The damage is not irreversible. But the cracks began a long time ago. 

In Mobley’s office, Hopper sits like a doomed man. He is drawn tight around himself, a clenched fist instead of a free-beating heart inside his chest. The baseball cap hides his face when he needs it; he turns away from the camera, shadowing his eyes. And yet for someone raised with a deep, pathological reticence to showing emotion, Hopper is often surprisingly candid about his feelings in his discussions with Mobley, even if he struggles to articulate them. Part of this may be due to the fact that watching two men sit in emotionally constipated silence doesn’t exactly make for gripping viewing (though I do wonder if, in the post-Ted Lasso popularization of therapy in sport, The Phenom might achieve a wider, more receptive audience). Silence and inward repression have their place in painting Hopper’s emotional landscape—we see pain even as he tamps it down—but ultimately it is words that unearth hidden reams of buried anger, frustration, and anxiety. At its heart the film is a continual dialogue. 

Conversation is nearly always one-on-one. It adds to the interrogatory feeling of Hopper’s interactions: everyone wants to know how he is doing, what his future holds, how he aims to better himself. Advice is handed out, solicited or not. Characters often speak in long, direct monologues—a kind of psychological evisceration aimed at Hopper’s blank affect—but it would be unfair to wholly dismiss the dialogue in The Phenom as heavy-handed exposition or thematic hand-holding. “You think because you can throw a baseball, that you are special in some kind of real, non-secular way,” Hopper’s girlfriend tells him, and later: “Stop trying to be some commercial, conditioned, brain-washed, TV cowboy version of yourself.” In eschewing naturalism, director Noah Buschel’s hyperarticulate world serves a very specific purpose, exposing the thoughts and judgments of those around Hopper while isolating him from this never-ending, confining wave of opinion and expectation. 

In an earlier scene, Hopper’s English teacher (Elizabeth Marvel) bears down on him with a blunt pep talk. Perhaps this is a moment where his memory fogs, where the phrasing becomes pointed and cuts straight to the uncertain marrow of his identity in the world, because that is what he expects to have heard. “If you only do what comes easy to you, what you are good at, you are just an untrained thoroughbred, which isn’t a racehorse, at all,” she provokes. “It’s a wild animal.” She delivers these words directly at the lens, looming above the viewer. Are they her own, or is the discussion tinged by the self-damnation of Hopper’s own recollection? We are looking out through Hopper’s eyes, trapped by the eyeline of the frame and his teacher’s challenging gaze. 

So much of the film plays out on the battlefield of Hopper’s head. Another scene where we glimpse this interiority is during a flashback to the pitcher’s mound. The sound of the police siren whirls closer and closer, drowning out all else. Hopper bends, poised like a dancer as he straightens for the pitch, and the light sucks from the scene, leaving only a flashing, vibrant red. Classical music swells. The screen shrinks to pinhole focus: in the stands, Hopper Sr. is being led away in handcuffs by two policemen. Hopper draws his cap down over his eyes. 

This is by far the most stylized scene in the film, but there are other technical, filmic shots that play visually with Hopper’s focus—including some noticeable split diopter ones. Hopper is always set apart. Dedication to the formal visual language of the film places an emphasis on its elliptical, unstructured form, creating a piecemeal poetry of sorts that rejects the obvious trappings of the genre. If the great sports films of collective nostalgia exist firmly in the studio system of filmmaking, pitching only for success, then The Phenom is a deliberate lob out of bounds. And I love it for that. 


In ‘90s classic Good Will Hunting, the moment of catharsis comes between prodigy Will (Matt Damon) and his therapist (Robin Williams) while discussing the long-borne scars of parental abuse. “It’s not your fault,” Williams repeats, over and over again; Damon’s boundaries crumble and the two men embrace tearfully. It’s a matter of the right, long-needed words. There is no such emotional release in Hopper’s scenes with Dr. Mobley, whose job is not to solve Hopper’s years of father issues, but to find a way for him to unfreeze, to access the depth of his talent without shattering into pieces. Mobley most clearly attends to Hopper’s need in a moment past words: Hopper, exhausted, curls up on the couch. Mobley unfurls an emerald green blanket and tucks him in, careful and tender, as a father would. It is the last scene we see of them together. The best caregivers can’t excavate a lifetime of trauma with a perfectly timed sentence; they spread out the blanket, creating a space for the self to exist unburdened, if only for a little while. Now sleep. 

To what extent is parental abuse responsible for Hopper’s inability to throw a strike? After all, baseball is another word for the thorny relationship between fathers and sons—ask Harry Chapin. It’s true that Hopper Sr.’s behavior colors his son’s psyche in damaging ways, but at its core the film advocates nothing so pat and prosaic. In an interview with DigBoston, Buschel states: 

“People say it’s a father-son movie, but to me it’s not. Ethan is playing the judge inside of Hopper. When that internal judge is being really harsh to us—I don’t mean to get too abstract, but—the judge can sometimes appear in our life physically. But it is coming from the internal mind state, and it’s just externalized. For me, it’s not about a father and a son. It’s about the judge.” 

The looming problem of Hopper’s life, this perspective says, is not anything as overdone as a father that flings beer cans and twitches with a red-eyed, belligerent stare. It is Hopper’s judge. The judge is a bully. The judge is a hard-assed amalgamation of every underdog’s abusive father and hectoring mentor rolled into one; a silhouette of macho posturing and wired, mangy persecution carried out in the name of toughening up his soft-bellied, ungrateful son. 

“I picture my dad,” Hopper says, “and all I see is a shadow.” In another actor’s hands, Hopper Sr. might remain the flat dark outline of an abuser, terrorizing his son and cycling through an enviably terrible rotation of patterned Hawaiian shirts, but Hawke as ever brings a dimension of depth to the role. If, like me, you associate Hawke with a series of roles as sensitive, literate types (First Reformed, Dead Poets Society, Before Sunset, The Woman in the Fifth, and even, haplessly, Sinister), then this only helps make his performance here more casually insidious. His voice remains creaky and familiar, almost likable, pitching up and down in hectoring banter until a chilling zone-in on a misstep, a broken rule, a perceived reticence. Hopper shrinks into dull resignation, trying not to engage in his father’s wheedling interrogation (“You must think you’re pretty astonishing…You can tell me, it’s alright”—talk about a loaded question) but even silence proves provocation. The conversation is rigged from the start. Their scenes crackle with a sickening volatility that settles like a stone in the pit of my stomach. 

Hopper’s father is an adherent of old-school masculinity, the kind that tosses kids into swimming pools in the name of sink-or-swim and turns fiery with rage at the first sign of “sissy” tears. While Hopper Sr. embodies the hallmarks of every vicious, abusive father figure, ultimately it is this adherence to his own “warped, macho truth” that exposes the impotence at the heart of the judge. To his son, the judge is inescapable as his own shadow. To himself, he stands as a symbol of a dying breed of hard-man, unreformed, an un-wrangleable Steve McQueen looking out on the crisscrossed barbed wire of encroaching weak modernity with bitter disgust. 

To the audience, there is something frail behind his macho tirade. The judge sports a comically bad Felix the Cat tattoo and a buzzcut trimmed too short at the top of his head. He gets caught pushing drugs. Rides the slipstream of his more talented son in an embittered pursuit of the missed glory of his own baseball career. 

The image is so banal in its tyranny. If only we could see our own judge so clearly. 


There’s a line that television writer David Milch often quotes from a poem (“I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas: The Natural History of a Vision”) written by his mentor, Robert Penn Warren, when discussing the impetus of his own work. It ends as follows: 

Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness
May be converted into the future tense
Of joy.

In its non-linear approach, The Phenom agrees that the past, present, and future coexist in a space where each point is accessible and connected to the other. In one scene, Mobley takes Hopper to an empty parking lot and asks him to close his eyes and imagine the most fun he’s ever had playing baseball: being five years old, pitching for the first time in an abandoned lot with his friends. No pressure. No contracts, no crushing expectation. Just playing for the fun of it. The sky darkens and droplets of water fill up the screen. Hopper stands in overcast shadow. “There’s a lot of positive things in our shadow that we need,” Mobley tells him in an earlier scene, discussing Hopper’s dominating father. “Like our instincts, for one…I want you to throw without thinking about it.” 

Hopper throws. His body curls into position, without thought. The five-year-old boy releases the ball and feels a spark of joy in the perfection of the movement. Perhaps it is possible to tap into that old feeling, the body’s instinctual motion—perhaps it can be accessed in a present free from nagging coaches or fathers, or self-condemnation. A time existed before the judge. “I swear to you,” Mobley promises in their final scene to a disbelieving, defensive Hopper, “that feeling of being and playing, that still is available to you. You threw strikes. I couldn’t bullshit you about that.” 

The hunted look in Hopper’s eye. He trembles with it. He knows he’s not special. He’s just a kid. Perhaps that’s what he needs to be: a kid, discovering his love for the game. And it wasn’t love at first sight; in an earlier conversation, he quotes a command given by his father, which set him on the path to the major league: “If you love it, good things will come.” And so he loved it. 

There is no definitive, electrifying game to let the audience know if Hopper regains his control. Instead, we end with one final conversation in a prison visiting room. Hopper sits on his side of the partition, his cap, rings, chain, studs gone by the film’s end. Stripped of artifice. Hopper Sr. surveys his son through the glass. They talk about Hopper’s upcoming game, Dr. Mobley, prison therapists, the reignited spark between Hopper and his high school girlfriend Dorothy (“You know how to do that, huh? Love somebody?”). His father confesses he dreamed of Hopper’s mother last night. The air between them is raw and quivering, strangely unburdened. A son and his father, talking. The film doesn’t push a reconciliation or a cathartic confrontation between the two—ultimately, the relationship remains as unresolved as Hopper’s waning performance. Years of abuse cannot be undone. The pain of the past is still pain, but there is something light here, something that makes Hopper Sr. finally ask, his eyes red and voice shaking, “You just come to see the old man, huh? Your old man who’s not worth a damn.” Hawke is unbearably good here, as is Simmons. 

The question quavers. There’s something about undeserving grace, freely given, that goes against the grain of a history defined by sneering, casual violence. Finally, the monster has no bite. Here is the judge, trapped behind glass, reduced to an impotent point—and still. On the night before his big game, his son comes to see him. 

Sometimes it’s as easy as looking across an unbridgeable divide at something you ought to hate, and deciding to love it regardless. The pain of the past may yet be converted into the future tense of joy. 

Hopper’s father twitches, devastated. He looks at his son, seeing him perhaps for the first time as someone strong, and brave, and beyond his reach, and laughs, “Show me what you’re made of, why don’t you?” He takes a shaky breath. Abrupt cut to credits. The conversation runs in and out of my head for weeks, without being able to articulate a reason. A performance takes root. It’s the same pleasure of seeing two people on stage, the unseen why sparking between them, and you realize there’s something special here, sparse though the surface dialogue and set may be. You don’t need a 100-mile-an-hour fastball or a thundering round of applause to know you’ve stuck the landing. 

The credits roll, Dion covering “I Can’t Help but Wonder Where I’m Bound,” yet this isn’t the song that lingers in my gut afterwards—when I think of the film, I think of Gould’s lightly tripping piano. The opening song haunts Hopper throughout the film. It surfaces in unexpected places, whistled, hummed, reappearing like the itch of an earworm you can’t quite shake. The beginning movement to Mozart’s sonata is named for the way in which it is meant to be performed: Andante grazioso. Played at a “walking pace, gracefully.” 

If anything, this title invokes the film’s dedication to gently and compassionately meeting its protagonist in the middle of his broken life, in acting as witness, in delivering the words and actions that might bring healing instead of letting the old, internalized ones fester. By slowing down the speed of the game to a walking pace, it gives us time to breathe. Witness the geese flying overhead. Admit that some things are out of our control. Take off the armor, if only we can remember how. Rediscover joy. 

And bear in mind that, at its essence, music, like sport, is something meant for one thing: playing.