Horror and suspense movies have certainly gotten plenty of mileage out of eerie children with powers. You could probably list several films off the top of your head that have leaned heavily into this now common horror movie device. The sci-fi psychological thriller “Prodigy” joins the long list of movies who use creepy kids to unsettle their audiences.
While the idea is familiar, “Prodigy” works because of a key decision by co-writers and co-directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal. They place an unexpectedly heavy emphasis on human interactions, namely between child psychologist Dr. Fonda (Richard Neil) and 9-year-old Ellie (Savannah Liles). The film’s miniscule budget may play a role, but ultimately it’s this tighter more character-driven focus that makes this a success.
Dr. Fonda is summoned to a high-security facility by an old college friend Agent Olivia Price (Jolene Andersen). Once there he learns of Ellie, a supernaturally gifted young girl with a supreme intellect and a violent past. Ellie’s perceived sociopathic personality has led to her be deemed too big of a threat. She is scheduled to be executed and dissected for study. Despite the cynicism of her colleagues Olivia still has hope for the Ellie and Dr. Fonda is her last resort.
Haughey and Vidal boil up a good amount of tension as Fonda tries to break through Ellie’s cast iron exterior to find the humanity in the ‘monster’. Ellie expects the same contentious back-and-forth as with other doctors she has mentally chewed up and spat out. But Dr. Fonda throws her off with his open mind and unwillingness to judge her based on a case file. The cold and disconcerting Ellie is hesitant and confrontational. But if Fonda can break through he may just save her life.
We get a handful of supporting characters who are all convinced pulling the plug is the right move. None believe the unkept and unconventional Dr. Fonda can make a dent in Ellie’s tough psyche. This is also where the movie’s biggest weaknesses shows through. Outside of Olivia none of the supporting characters have any depth whatsoever. Most are caricatures rather than authentic and interesting, not to mention a couple of the performances are pretty rough. It brings things down a notch.
“Prodigy” still manages to be a thoughtful and suspenseful thriller and does so despite its small scale and even smaller budget. I mean practically the entire film takes place in two rooms. But that shouldn’t scare you away. It manages its strengths well plus it features an outstanding performance from young Savannah Liles. Give it a look.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS