Phenomenon (1996)

Directed by Jon Turtletaub

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There’s a little It’s a Wonderful Life in the small-town melodrama Phenomenon, starring a guy (John Travolta) who surely wouldn’t have been offered the role were it not for the success of 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

Travolta plays an affable and affectionately dull mechanic named George Malley.  He’s very, very much an everyman, purposefully so in order for his transformation into a genius to be more dramatic.  In the first five or so minutes of the film we establish that Malley is struggling to learn Spanish, is a subpar chess player, struggles to keep rabbits out of his garden and that his romantic desire for Lace (Kyra Sedgwick) is a one-way street.

One night he sees a bright light in the sky, and before he knows it he can speak fluent Spanish, defeat the best chess player in town with ease, comes up with the solution for his garden and finally gets from Lace the love that– wait, Lace continues to reject him.

That unreciprocated love is one of the more fascinating elements to the story.  As George becomes more intelligent and, eventually, telekinetic, he becomes more legend than person in the small California town where he lives.  At first everyone loves him, but soon he frightens people, particularly as he is punished for his unexpected intelligence.  The FBI will pick him up after he decodes a military message, and his correspondence with a Berkeley professor is cut short because of the FBI’s concern that he is a security risk.

As this happens and George turns into Boo Radley, Lace continues to be the only person who treats him like she did before he changed.  In dodging his romantic advances she treats him like a human, refusing to fall under any kind of spell or act according to some kind of cinematic story code.

I’m pretty sure the movie knows we expect them to get together, and eventually they do.  Still, most of the film keeps them apart and gives Lace some agency.  She has her reasons for keeping her distance, but of course those reasons have to do with a man in her past.  She’s a pretty underdeveloped character, but her refusal to give into everyman George’s charms does give her some control, and it’s nice to see.

Were she to melt into George’s arms as we expect, it would essentially suggest that she should just because George is nice to her.  But that’s not how relationships or affection work.  George’s kindness, keeping in mind his end goal, does start to feel a little unnerving, even if it’s supposedly harmless all the while.  George is so persistent, in fact, that he starts to seem a little more and more off-putting as time goes on.

Anyways, that love story is a small part of the story, but everything else orbits it.  George is a super genius, and he certainly makes intelligence feel like a super power, as if every child leaving the theater is eager to run to their local library, but we will eventually have to grapple with the consequences of his super-smarts.

There is a reason for these changes within him, but the story only offers up enough of an explanation to stop you from inquiring further and without giving any meaning to where it comes from.  The story isn’t about the supernatural, just the human element to standing out.

All George wants is to remain an everyman.  His journey and the culmination to his story appeal to the values of being ordinary.  As the movie draws to a close we are left championing the beauty of small-town life, and it may feel like we’ve just spent 100 minutes in Grover’s Corners, the fictional small-town American from Thornton Wilder’s Our Town.

So Phenomenon uses the sublime and supernatural to remind us of the value of being ordinary.

Up Next: The Rider (2017), Paddington 2 (2017), 45 Years (2015)

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