The Prodigy is an often chilling and disturbing - if not particularly meaningful or impactful - horror movie weighed down its by derivative plot.
There's a reason filmmakers keep making movies about evil kids. They're an effective way for storytellers to explore parents' worst fears about their children, whether through some kind of supernatural parable (The Omen) or a more grounded story about how some kids are, apparently, just born nasty jerks (The Good Son). The Prodigy is cut from the same cloth as the many movies about creepy kids that've come before it, but adds a twist where it concerns the cause of the child's unsettling behavior. While the resulting film generally succeeds at being macabre, it doesn't go far enough to really break the mold for its subgere. The Prodigy is an often chilling and disturbing - if not particularly meaningful or impactful - horror movie weighed down its by derivative plot.
Orange is the New Black's Taylor Schilling stars in The Prodigy as Sarah, a woman who's expecting with her husband, John (Peter Mooney). While their son Miles is born significantly earlier than expected, he otherwise seems to be in perfectly good health. In fact, as Miles grows up, he starts exhibiting more and more signs of genius-level intelligence, much to Sarah and John's delight. However, by the time he turns eight years old, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is still struggling to socialize with other kids his age and typically isolates himself. More than that, he's begun to do more and more unsettling things, leading his parents to worry that there's something terribly wrong with him.
On the advice of one of their doctors, Sarah meets with an unconventional therapist named Arthur Jasobson (Colm Feore). Arthur, as it turns out, has encountered children like Miles before and has an outlandish explanation for the cause of his problems. At first, Sarah dismisses his advice, believing that there must be a more logical reason for Miles' increasingly hostile and violent behavior. But as Miles continues to act out in disturbing ways, Sarah begins to uncover more and evidence that suggests Dr. Jacobson is right... and she's running out of time to save Miles, before the gentle little boy she loves is gone forever.
Written by Jeff Buhler (The Midnight Meat Train), The Prodigy works better as a suspenseful horror-thriller than a psychological one, largely because it tips its hand way too early. The film makes it pretty clear what's really going on with Miles from the very beginning, so there's never any reason to question his mother's mental health or wonder if her perspective is untrustworthy (a la The Babadook and its own exploration of the horror of motherhood). At the same time, this heightens the tension throughout the first two-thirds of the movie and leaves viewers wondering when and how (rather than if) Miles will strike next. The Prodigy still takes the time to show Sarah and John questioning their own sanity and wondering if there's another explanation for the way Miles is acting. For the most part, however, these scenes (including the references to John's abusive father) don't really go anywhere and mostly serve to stretch the story out until Sarah accepts the unfathomable truth about her son.
Like most horror film villains, Miles requires some suspension of disbelief when it comes to his actions and what he is and isn't physically capable of. Scott, who played (tragic) Georgie in the first IT movie, does a nice job of bringing the character to life, especially in the scenes where Miles is quietly plotting horrible things to do or switches from being malicious to (seemingly) innocent in the blink of an eye. That said, The Prodigy abruptly veers into campy territory when Miles starts talking like a deranged super-villain, much in the same way that a movie like The Good Son did. Still, he works well with Schilling in their scenes together, whether he's acting like a little psychopath or a normal boy. Schilling is also sturdy in her performance here, though the film ends up short-changing her character in terms of development. This becomes a bigger problem in the film's third act, when Sarah gets a dramatic payoff to her arc that doesn't feel altogether earned.
Speaking of which: a few surprises in the final third aside, The Prodigy follows a predictable trajectory from start to finish. Director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) also borrows liberally from many a famous horror title here, including cult classics like Child's Play and more recent hits like Insidious. The film ends up feeling somewhat derivative for it, but is aided by its willingness to go to darker places than similar horror movies have in the past. It helps that McCarthy avoids leaning too heavily on jump scares (though, of course, there are those) and focuses more on creating a sense of atmospheric dread with his direction. He's further assisted in these efforts by his trusted cinematographer Bridger Nielson's bleakly lit and often shadowy visuals, as well as the haunting score by Joseph Bishara (who, after his work on The Conjuring and Insidious series, knows a thing or two about spooky musical cues).
The main problem with The Prodigy is that its story is (put frankly) kind of pointless. Ostensibly, it's a film about the dark side of parenthood and how far someone (specifically, a mother) would go to protect their child, but the theme comes off feeling half-baked in the end. The Prodigy often succeeds at being unpleasant and freaky, but without a clearly-defined throughline it struggles to leave much of a lasting impression. There's not really a moral or lesson to be taken from the movie either since, at the end of the day, even the characters' unethical and sometimes confounding decisions have a limited effect on how the film ultimately resolves itself. It's all darkness with no real purpose, in other words.
All things considered, though, The Prodigy is a serviceable horror offering for those in the mood to watch something that can be genuinely frightening in the moment, if not necessarily memorable or likely to inspire nightmares. Those who are interested in seeing this one for Schilling might want to check their expectations too, seeing as this film is really a showcase for Scott more than any of the adult cast members. Things will start picking up for the horror-loving crowd in the weeks ahead, as we move on to promising new releases from studios like Blumhouse and/or directors like Jordan Peele. For those who're willing to wait or can do without a scary movie fix in the meantime, you might be better off saving the latest addition to the evil kids thriller pile for a viewing at home.
The Prodigy is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 101 minutes long and is rated R for violence, disturbing and bloody images, a sexual reference and brief graphic nudity.
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