Released Mar. 13, 2018
Unrated (equal to PG-13 for violence, thematic elements, and language) – 1hr 20min
Directed by Alex Haughey & Brian Vidal
Starring Richard Neil, Savannah Liles, Jolene Andersen
Child psychologist James Fonda (Neil) is brought in as a consultant for a government project by an old associate (Andersen). He is caught completely off guard by his new assignment – to counsel and evaluate a sociopathic super-genius child named Ellie (Liles) who is handled as if she is a monster. How dangerous can this little girl possibly be?…
80% of the action in Prodigy is actually dialogue, mostly as a battle of wits between an unorthodox doctor and an extraordinary & antagonistic patient. Think the Starling and Lector scenes in Silence of the Lambs if Hannibal were a narcissistic kid.
It’s rightfully debatable whether Prodigy even qualifies as a horror film. First off, it’s bloodless (not to be confused with a complete lack of violence though) and that’s virtually unheard of within the modern movies of the genre. My opinion is that gore, while quite common, is not an absolute essential to horror – it’s often relied upon to generate reactions of dread or disgust, but there are both other methods and other reactions that exist within the spectrum of fear. Second, while there are a few big things that happen, much of the story of Prodigy progresses through the mechanics of psychological analysis as opposed to the more direct struggles for survival that typically serve as the anchors for horror. That doesn’t mean that the film generates no suspense or anxiety – in fact, it’s very well established that Ellie is ridiculously dangerous and we have a protagonist that may not fully appreciate that this session is a tightrope walk that could literally kill him. So I’m calling it as horror.
And as horror, its very conservative approach has an unmistakable throwback quality to it. Take the setting back sixty years, slap some black-and-white and film grain over it, throw Jimmy Stewart into the lead role, and with more imaginative camera work, you could call it a lost Hitchcock classic. I’m genuinely surprised that I can’t say that my overstimulated 21st-century brain was bored to tears by Prodigy – in fact, the story unfolds at a very satisfactory pace, despite how extremely talky it is. Bringing it in at a lean 80 minutes was also a good call. The film never stops to brood or linger and doesn’t get too hung up on any secondary details along the way. It gets down to business, and that’s a quality I frequently tend to like.
Given how sparse the proceedings are here, Prodigy would utterly fail if either of its two principal leads weren’t up to the task, but good news, they are. Savannah Liles as Ellie gives a performance that warrants a mention among the best ‘evil kid’ roles. Despite differences that become increasingly obvious as the movie moves forward, she very much invokes the spirit of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector (and it’s not well-hidden that the character was a huge influence here). You don’t know whether to love her or hate her, even when she’s spouting off wickedly vainglorious insults or wildly gruesome answers to inkblot tests to the woefully underprepared Dr. Fonda, and she keeps you off-balanced throughout. Richard Neil, as said doctor, brings a scruffy underdog charm as Ellie’s unexpectedly cunning adversary. There is something notably peculiar about his line delivery, especially early on, which led me to discover that he’s a rather prolific voice actor, which resolved my issues. He just has one of those golden voices that make him sound like he’s constantly narrating a documentary or reading an audiobook, so no points against him. The rest of the supporting cast are OK enough to not detract from the main event.
Chess is a major theme in this film, and like the game, the movie very much values strategy over action. If that has no appeal to you, then there’s nothing for you here – it’s not some revolutionary experience that is going to change your perspective on such matters. However, if you’re intrigued, you’ll likely find it to be rewarding – a rare exercise in cerebral and minimalist horror that still succeeds in telling a coherent and compelling story.