Prodigy plays with some big ideas and heady themes, but doesn't fully develop all of them as it struggles to truly connect with audiences.
Marking the feature-length debut of director Nathan Leon (who previously helmed shorts such as D.O.A. and Limbo), new drama Prodigy is hoping to make a minor splash as it hits VOD. Nominated for four International Christian Film and Music Festival awards (including Best Picture), it certainly has a more intriguing pedigree than the typical straight-to-video release, giving indie fans hope for a rewarding counter-programming option to check out this holiday season. There's no denying Leon has an ambitious vision, but he isn't entirely successful in the execution. Prodigy plays with some big ideas and heady themes, but doesn't fully develop all of them as it struggles to truly connect with audiences.
Prodigy is set in the not-too-distant future, where teenage boy Caleb Black (Embry Johnson) is an individual with the ability to seemingly receive messages from a higher power, allowing him to accurately predict potentially apocalyptic events. After the first two of Caleb's prognostications come true, tensions start to mount in anticipation for the third. Various parties, including the government, have a keen interest in Caleb, hoping to make sense of it all and figure out a plan.
Caleb refuses to give information about his third message to any official, saying he'll only speak to his estranged father, Erick (Cory Kays). When the two are reunited, Caleb expresses his desire to break free of the facility where he's being held and trek to a mysterious location, where he'll receive another message that could alter human history. Erick reluctantly agrees to help, embarking on a dangerous journey that could change the very fabric of his personal beliefs.
Leon also penned the Prodigy script, and his approach to the writing is a tad flawed. He essentially thrusts viewers right into the thick of the story, not always taking the necessary time to properly set up character dynamics and relationships. Things start to become clearer as the movie progresses, but the early going can be a little tricky to follow as Leon rushes through establishing a universe where the supernatural is possible. It's nice to see the filmmaker demonstrate a trust in his audience to pick up on what's happening, but the first act definitely could have benefitted from having a little more room to breathe before Leon dived head-first into the road trip/chase aspect that propels a majority of the plot.
As for the craftsmanship: Leon maintains a steady hand on the material, moving the film along at a nice pace to ensure viewers never lose interest in Prodigy's genre elements. The situations the characters find themselves in don't exactly reinvent the wheel, but there's still enough at stake in the core narrative (from both a personal and worldly perspective) for people to care about what happens. Having said that, Leon isn't as smooth handling the thematic angles of Prodigy, laboring his characters with (at times) heavy-handed dialogue about topics like fate vs. free will and the existence of divine beings controlling our destinies. Again, this is fairly complex subject matter for a first-time feature director to tackle, but it's certainly a little rough around the edges as Leon tries to reach viewers with his message. Some audience members may be turned off a bit by its perceived preachiness.
Erik and Caleb are meant to be the emotional foundation of Prodigy, and things aren't entirely convincing on that front. While Kays and Johnson have some strong scenes together, the father-son bond Leon is hoping to flourish doesn't completely shine through for the whole movie. The chemistry between the two leads doesn't always light up the screen, but the shortcomings might be more of a byproduct of the writing than the individual performances. Both Kays and Johnson do a good job with the material they have to work with; the former doing a riff on a typical broken soul haunted by past tragedy and the latter accurately portraying a "gifted" child burdened with an overwhelming responsibility. The characters definitely fit into old archetypes, but for the purposes of the film, they work.
The supporting cast fares a little worse, primarily because Prodigy is loaded with secondary players. The film is hampered by one too many story threads (there are multiple parties pursuing Erik and Caleb on their journey), and a couple of these eventually reach uneventful conclusions that illustrate how superfluous they are. Streamlining the core narrative would have helped matters and allowed certain characters to make more of an impact. As it stands, the standouts here include Brian Tyrrell as the government's Dr. Faron (an admittedly clichéd corporate suit villain) and Hailey Henry as Maya, a waitress who offers to help Erik and Caleb. The script gives the actress some fascinating layers to explore, though the character's arc feels a little unearned. Other actors like Tyler Roy Roberts as Jericho and King Amir Allahyar as Gabriel are relegated to being generic mercenaries on the hunt for the heroes.
In the end, Prodigy deserves points for swinging for the fences in its attempt to give audiences a fully rewarding experience, but it doesn't quite hit the mark across the board. The ideas and themes presented have been explored with a little more grace and nuance in films prior, though interested viewers should still be able to have interesting discussions about its subject matter after watching it. For a first-time feature director, Leon clearly has some talent that he'll hopefully be able to refine as his career moves forward. Naturally, Prodigy will be low on many's must-see lists this December, but it might be worth checking out for its target demographic.
Prodigy is now available on VOD. It runs 110 minutes and is not rated.
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