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'The Phenom' effectively dramatizes baseball's mind games

'The Phenom' effectively dramatizes baseball's mind games
Johnny Simmons, left, and Ethan Hawke in "The Phenom." (Tina Rowden / RLJ Entertainment)

Not every game is decided on the field; some are won and lost between the ears. That's the point of view of writer-director Noah Buschel's "The Phenom," an unusual and affecting baseball drama where nearly all the action is internal.

Johnny Simmons stars as Hopper Gibson, a talented young pitcher who's been scouted by the majors since high school. At the start of the film, Hopper's stuck in the minors, sent down due to a chronic case of wildness.

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"The Phenom" bounces between the past and present, gradually revealing that the kid's being pulled in different directions. Hopper's father (played by Ethan Hawke) is a hyper-macho criminal who's been bullying his son and rattling his confidence his entire life. Hopper's also working with a noted sports psychologist (Paul Giamatti), reminding him what he loves about competing.

Buschel squeezes more backstory and side characters into his picture than are really necessary, and his dialogue sometimes ranges into over-explanatory psychobabble. But it's hard to find any fault with his core cast members, who play the material in pleasingly soft tones when it would've been very easy to go shrill.

Mostly, though, it's refreshing to see a sports film deal with something more than just the final score. "The Phenom" may be choppy, but it's saying something sincere about how the pressure to be thought of as a winner can be an athlete's most formidable opponent.

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'The Phenom'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Playing: AMC Burbank Town Center 8; also on VOD

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