Under the Radar: The Phenom
A Father’s Shadow: Parental Abuse and Its Reverberating Effects within The Phenom
Under the Radar is a column by Strange Harbors that explores hidden gems in pop culture. Whether it's a little seen film, an underappreciated television show, or a forgotten comic, there's a lot of quality stuff out there that goes relatively unnoticed. This column's job is to shine an oft-needed light on these overlooked, but ultimately worthwhile, works. This week, we'll be taking a look at The Phenom, Noah Buschel’s under-seen film that powerfully tracks a talented young pitcher and his fraught relationship with his father.
“Do you think that your father had anything to do with your success as a pitcher, Hopper?”
“Hm. I mean, yeah. When I was a little kid, I never thought I was gonna make it to the majors. I’d wanna go hang out with my friends, go to the beach, you know. But he, he would say, ‘No, that’s not gonna work. If you love it, good things will come.’”
“So what did you do?”
“I loved it.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
Parenting is a difficult responsibility. Everyone knows that the act of raising a child takes an indescribable amount of work and care. Every mother and father, every family, and every culture can have a different way of going about childrearing - and there is no single “correct” way to prepare one’s next of kin for the world. However, abuse - physical or verbal - has deep-rooted psychological effects that tear at a child’s core, wreaking havoc on their ability to not only communicate with the world, but also on how they perceive themselves. Mistreatment from one’s father can be an especially ferocious force; The Phenom, with a performance from Ethan Hawke that exemplifies this terrifying persona, is a movie that shows just what happens when a father believes his own brutal agenda is more important than anything else in the universe - even his own son.
The Phenom first premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016. Its writer and director, Noah Buschel, cut his teeth on the New York independent film scene; his 2008 film, The Missing Person, earned him a Gotham Awards nomination, and his subsequent directorial efforts in Sparrow Dance and Glass Chin also received critical acclaim. And while The Phenom was similarly praised, it did not generate a large box office presence after being released by RLJ Entertainment in June of 2016. It’s a shame, because the film, more than any in recent memory, delves deeply into the topic of child abuse and how far its effects may reach within the victim and overtake their psyche.
The Phenom, to begin with, is not a sports film that simply looks at abuse as a sub-topic. Rather, it is a film wholly regarding child abuse, viewed through the lens of sports. The subject - specifically a fraught and toxic relationship between father and son - is dark and twisted enough. Adding the additional layers of “father/coach” and “child-athlete” on top makes the relationship even more difficult and complex. Buster Douglas, the boxer who beat Mike Tyson in a famous 1990 match, was once embroiled in this exact type of toxic relationship with his own father. Buster was so afraid of him that he actually enlisted his uncle to break the news to his father that he was hiring a different trainer. Think about that: a heavyweight boxer who would go on to beat the monstrous Mike Tyson in his prime, yet he feared telling his own dad that he no longer wanted to be trained by him. Numerous psychological factors are mixed into the father/coach and son/athlete equation: a father wants his son to succeed, a father looks at the son as a successor (especially if the son’s playing the same sport), a father wants his son to honor the entire family, etc. But drilled down to its core, it has to do with pride, and selfish pride is the prime aspect of Hopper Gibson, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), the terrifying father of Hopper Gibson, played by Johnny Simmons.
“The Phenom, to begin with, is not a sports film that simply looks at abuse as a sub-topic. Rather, it’s a film wholly regarding child abuse, viewed through the lens of sports.”
The film begins with Hopper on a pitching mound, and with the sound of applause slowly building. All of a sudden, the scene pauses. We hear narration, and then realize that we’re actually watching a video in a sports psychologist’s office. Hopper, a professional pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, is currently in a session with said psychologist, played by Paul Giamatti. He’s in an athletic slump, having had a series of terrible games, and neither he nor his team have any idea why this is occurring. Enter Dr. Mobley (Paul Giamatti), who has been hired to diagnose the root of Hopper’s troubles. With the video frozen, Dr. Mobley asks Hopper what happened here, and the upstart pitcher struggles to think about why this moment was so grueling. And it is indeed a struggle. In the film, Hopper has trouble answering simple questions like these from Dr. Mobley.
Hopper asks if his particular issue has a name, but Dr. Mobley strays from trying to categorize it. “This is a passing thing for you,” he says. “If you give it a name, it might want to stick around.” However, Dr. Mobley does utter one of the most key quotes in the entire film. Hopper mentions that he’s having problems with his memory. And Dr. Mobley responds, “Memory’s a funny business. 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.” Many of us can relate to this, at least partially. The brain, whether psychosomatically or intentionally, has this “vaseline-like” ability to soothe parts of memories so as to not make them as harsh when we bring them back up for recollection. As we’ll come to find, there is a certain category of memories that Hopper is rubbing this metaphorical vaseline on.
It’s important to mention that, although Hopper is the protagonist of the film, a large number of scenes have him situated as the secondary subject from a cinematographic standpoint. Many scenes are shot from far away, or from Hopper’s personal perspective, making other objects or people look enormous - lording over him. Cinematographer Ryan Samul is a master of conveying power dynamics through his framing, allowing the film’s visuals to subconsciously narrate Hopper’s story. One scene of note is a flashback to when Hopper, being looked at by baseball scouts and about to enter into the major leagues, is being lectured by his high school teacher, Ms. Epland (played by the incredible Elizabeth Marvel). Here, Hopper is sitting at a desk, looking up at Ms. Epland while she speaks, and it’s a first-person shot. Ms. Epland mentions that she “knows” his father, Hopper, Sr., and her monologue is equal parts caring and reprimanding:
With Ms. Epland’s “wild animal” example, we can start to imagine which person she’s talking about. Along with his father being in the back of his head, Hopper is feeling weighed down by the slump he’s in, as well as the dishonor he feels he’s bringing to his team and family. Indeed, within eight minutes of the start of the film, we see the sports media on top of him, demanding answers as to why he’s making so many mistakes on the pitching mound. Hopper immediately drives away from the frenzy that’s causing him stress, and finally stops his car at a pivotal location. Again, the cinematography is key here. As red lighting is cast down upon him - symbolizing his inner suffering - a poster from the TV series Justified is situated in the background. It’s no coincidence that visual cues from Justified (a tremendous series that ran from 2010-2015 on FX) has been chosen here. The protagonist from the show - Raylan Givens, played by the great Timothy Olyphant - also dealt with issues relating to his own abusive father. In this particular shot in The Phenom, Raylan’s gun points directly at Hopper’s head, while the aforementioned red light radiates down on his head like a forceful reminder of his burdens. This colored symbolism is a recurring visual motif in The Phenom, each time a grim reminder of stress and trauma for Hopper.
“Cinematographer Ryan Samul is a master of conveying power dynamics through his framing, allowing the film’s visuals to subconsciously narrate Hopper’s story.”
It’s important to note that, in all these scenes, we haven’t even seen Hopper’s father yet. We can, however, already feel his weighty presence in the film by the mere mention of him - whether it’s through the talk of Hopper’s psychological damage, or through the stress that we see Hopper dealing with. Hopper, Sr.’s introduction is a heavy scene that impact fully sets the tone for the father and son relationship. Around one-third of the way into the film, Hopper returns home from an argument with his girlfriend; he’s surprised to find his ex-con father at the house, sitting mostly in darkness, drinking beers while watching a baseball game. The conversation that follows is emblematic of their fractured and abusive relationship. Hopper notices that his father has a new tattoo, observing that it must’ve hurt. “Pain is just weakness leaving the body,” Hopper, Sr. says, brushing off the line of inquiry. It’s a quote that Hopper has learned by heart. Hopper, Sr. asks if his son has grown at all, and then scoffs at the reply that he’s grown an inch and a half. “You don’t have any muscle on you at all,” Hopper, Sr. says. “You know, the market’s got undetectable steroids again.” When Hopper changes the subject to ask if his mom is home, his father responds: “Why, you wanna cry to her?” He then demands that Hopper sits down and talks to him. Hopper tries to get out of the situation by saying he has homework, but his father tells him that he “knows” that Hopper is lying to him, and threatens him if he doesn’t come to him.
Hopper, Sr., we can tell from this conversation, has an inferiority complex going with regard to his son’s skills. He says he “can’t believe” that pro scouts are looking at Hopper, then he sarcastically asks if Hopper thinks that his baseball skills are “pretty astonishing.” He then tells Hopper that everything he’s accomplished is thanks to him. We then we get to the climax of the scene. Hopper, Sr. tells Hopper that he “saw him smile” at his most recent game on Saturday. It apparently broke one of Hopper, Sr.’s savage “rules”: to never show emotion on the pitching mound. After this, he hurls a full beer can at Hopper’s head, which injures him and causes him to bleed. They then go outside, where Hopper, Sr. makes Hopper run wind sprints in the driveway as punishment. In the middle of this, Hopper’s mother comes home, futilely attempting to curb her husband’s abuse, but is easily dismissed through some manipulative rhetoric and a hand wave. She has no power or control in this house. This is further exacerbated the next morning, when Hopper is awoken by his father at 3:30 AM for a run. The quote during this scene that comes from Hopper, Sr. is both barbaric and saddening.
“I know you’re pissed at me, all right. But let me tell you something right now. We are winning. You hear me? Only me, you, and the ghosts of the legends up at this hour. One of these days, you’re going to be rich. You are going to be in some fancy hotel. Two Egyptian princesses are going to be fighting over [you]. You’re gonna lean back, you’re gonna look at the ceiling, and think, ‘Goddamn, I love my dad!’”
What Hopper, Sr. and abusive parents of this nature fail to grasp is that psychologically-damaged children don’t generally reach a stage of success -much less being “rich” and in a hotel with “Egyptian princesses.” And if they do, they most likely reach it by vacating themselves from the abuse. Aspects such as pushing one’s child beyond assumed limits do exist within parenting, but child abuse goes further beyond this - mistreatment like constant taunting or even assault does nothing but harm a child mentally and/or physically. These brutal actions take such a heavy toll on children, that no matter which lesson or rules that a parent wants to instill in their child, such verbal or physical mistreatment will always take center stage in the mind and memory. A fact sheet put out by the Child Welfare Information Gateway back in April talks about the long-lasting effects child abuse may have, both physically (arthritis, brain damage, migraine headaches), and psychologically (attachment and social difficulties, post-traumatic stress). Some of these possible outcomes are frankly shocking. When a parent has an inferiority complex or ulterior motive that they put ahead of their child’s needs, then how could their son or daughter possibly get to the point of reaching their highest peak?
Despite all this savagery, Hopper still seems to protect his father’s reputation at times. Sometimes he chalks it up to defending his mother, other times, he seems to be guarding his father in order to secure a cozier mental image of him. “Maybe that’s how you like to think of him,” Dr. Mobley says, when talking about how Hopper made up occupations for his father in a Sports Illustrated interview, glossing over the fact that he was a drug dealer. Again, Dr. Mobley notices Hopper “rubbing the vaseline” on his memories, trying to make them less painful to bring up for himself. “We can make things be the way we want them to be in our head,” he says to Hopper, “so that the pain isn’t too much.” Dr. Mobley also scoffs a bit at Hopper bringing up the quote he memorized from his father: “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” Dr. Mobley says, “It has its own warped, macho truth to it.”
“I picture my dad, and all I see is a shadow,” Hopper says later. Not a whole person, one might say, but a fragment of one that embodies darkness. Mobley takes this in, then says that people can “reject” aspects of themselves they dislike, and “project” them onto other people, “things that make them feel uncomfortable or dangerous.” He then says, “But the funny thing is, there’s a lot of positive things in our shadow that we need…like our animal instincts.” Hopper responds to this by asking if Dr. Mobley wants him to get angry, to “explode.” Dr. Mobley replies, “No, I want you to throw without thinking about it. I want you to be instinctual. I want you to get out of your way. Leave yourself alone.” He even quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald to Hopper later, comparing him to Hopper and saying that they both “didn’t even have to think” about what they were doing because they were so good at it.
What Dr. Mobley says about being instinctual, and thinking about one’s own needs rings true. An abused individual does not owe anything to the abuser. Dr. Mobley even tries to get Hopper thinking in this direction, by asking him questions like, “Do you think your father had a lot to do with your success as a pitcher?” Hopper’s lukewarm response and his statement about how he loved baseball as soon as his father “made” him, is particularly telling. What Hopper’s supportive coach says similarly in a flashback scene during one of his high school games carries additional insight. He tells Hopper, “You got to fuck all that noise…You can’t worry about that stuff ‘cause you can’t control it.” It couldn’t be stated in a more frank or honest way. In a later scene, even when Hopper has made it into the majors, he’s still being disrespected and looked down on by Hopper, Sr. It doesn’t matter how much Hopper has progressed in his career. In his father’s eyes, he will never get far enough to satisfy him - he “can’t control” his father or his unfathomable expectations. So why should he try to satisfy anyone other than himself and those who truly support him?
As with the previous “Under the Radar” piece, we won’t go much further into the plot, much less spoil the final outcome. Such an underseen movie which deals with these monumental themes, and which showcases a spellbinding performance from Ethan Hawke, deserves to be witnessed untarnished. The Phenom is truly a hidden gem of a film, a film that summons up enlightening thoughts in the minds of their audience. If nothing else, there is something the viewer should think about while watching this movie: how large is an abusive parent’s shadow which looms over their child? And how deeply can the darkness seep into the person on whom it is cast?
Paul Adler has written content in various fields - from entertainment, to technology, to education. He currently works as a teacher and content writer for a tutoring agency in South Jersey, and is in the middle of crafting his first short story collection. Paul's been a fan of film and theater since the first time his mom took him to see Cabaret as a kid. He thinks There Will Be Blood should've won Best Picture, but nothing's perfect.