Prodigy offers a compelling, if low-budget psychological thriller that's elevated by the lead performances and a twist on a classic sci-fi premise.
Directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal have worked together on a number of short films and they reteamed for their first feature-length directorial effort, the science fiction thriller Prodigy. Haughey and Vidal directed and executive produced the film from a script they co-wrote. For their first full-length film, the pair put together an intimate character drama set within a sci-fi world and steeped in psychological thrills, all while analyzing the consequences of grief and guilt on a human psyche. Prodigy offers a compelling, if low-budget psychological thriller that's elevated by the lead performances and a twist on a classic sci-fi premise.
Prodigy follows Dr. James Fonda (Richard Neil), a psychologist who specializes in helping children, who is called in to aid with a special, but secretive case by his former university classmate Olivia (Jolene Anderson). Fonda is taken to a military compound where he's escorted to a control room by Colonel Birch (Emilio Palame). Birch explains the extensive list of rules for Fonda while he's interviewing the subject, then the psychologist is introduced to the other members of Olivia's team: chief technician Ryan (Aral Gribble), psychiatrist Dr. Keaton (David Linski), and biochemistry expert Dr. Werner (Harvey Johnson). Only after does Fonda meet the patient he's at the compound to evaluate: the nine-year-old girl Eleanor (Savannah Liles). The girl possesses a genius-level intellect, and she's bound in a straight jacket and tied to a chair.
Throughout the course of their discussion, Eleanor - who tells Fonda to call her Ellie - analyzes and dissects Fonda's life through observations of his appearance and mannerisms, all while he tries to gain her trust and learn about her. The evaluation takes a turn when Ellie admits she ruthlessly killed her own mother, causing Fonda to exit the interview room and ask Olivia, Birch and the rest of the team about Ellie's history. They confirm what Ellie said and tell Fonda she possesses "gifts" that they would like to examine on a molecular level. To do so, Ellie will be euthanized unless Fonda can prove there's a trace of humanity left in the young girl. With a ticking clock, Fonda resumes his discussion with Ellie and tries to get to the heart of the young girl with genius-level intellect and special abilities, so that he may save her life - though it remains to be seen if Ellie will let him save her.
The story of Prodigy is rather simple, but that allows for the script - especially the long exchanges between Ellie and Fonda - to really get to the heart of each character. Although Ellie quickly proves that she believes herself to be far superior to all other humans, Fonda slowly shows that he can hold his own against the young girl. Their dialogue is well-written and delivered with the kind of back and forth that allows for a tennis match experience, with the camera shifting back and forth between the two as they trade analyses and, in the case of Ellie, barbs against Fonda's appearance and life. With each scene, Prodigy expertly peels back the layers of its two main characters as the film dives deeper not only into the psychology that makes Ellie who she is, but into the past events that shaped Fonda as well. It's the kind of quiet character dissection rarely seen in big-budget sci-fi movies, but Prodigy draws on the tropes of sci-fi and superhero stories as well.
Prodigy falls into the incredibly niche, but recently popular genre of sci-fi stories about young girls with abilities. Like Stranger Things' Eleven and Logan's Laura, Prodigy features a young girl who has spent many of her formative years trapped in a facility, experimented on and examined by teams of adults who want to unlock the secrets of what humanity is capable of achieving. However, where Stranger Things and Logan relegated their young female leads to staying mostly silent, Prodigy's Ellie is quick to speak and even quicker with a smart-mouthed response to Fonda. It's this dialogue, though, that especially sets Prodigy apart since it allows for the young female lead to voice what's going on in her head, instead of acting as a kind of non-verbal sounding board for the characters around her (who are typically male and often older). In the case of Ellie, what she says may not be the truth, but the fact that she speaks gives her much more agency, and it ultimately elevates the story and drama of Prodigy.
Of course, the character of Ellie wouldn't be as strong without the performance of Liles, who is a force of nature as the titular prodigy. Liles absolutely nails the superiority that serves as Ellie's protective shield against the world, but also showcases vulnerability at the right moments. Altogether Ellie comes across as such a well-rounded character due to Liles' capabilities, and the young star proves herself able to hold her own in the room with co-star Neil as Fonda. Like Liles, Neil demonstrates a depth in Fonda that's necessary to create such a rich character drama in Prodigy. Further, the pair bounce off each other extremely well, creating and dispelling tension in a scene as needed to keep the thriller moving at a brisk pace. Beyond Liles and Neil, the supporting cast is serviceable, relegated to the sidelines and underdeveloped as stock characters for the sake of giving Ellie and Fonda the bulk of the screen time. Still, since it gives the two at the core of Prodigy more room to develop their characters, it's understandable that the supporting players aren't as well-developed.
When Prodigy struggles slightly is in the third act, with some of the more special effects-heavy scenes. Because the film's budget is lower than a typical superhero/sci-fi movie, the way Ellie's abilities are brought to life can be clumsy at times. This isn't always the case, and a particular scene in which Ellie uses her powers to play chess with Fonda is a more subtle use of her super-human skills in a way that effectively hints at what she's capable of, if she pushes herself even more. Still, even when the effects in Prodigy don't measure up to other movies in the genre, they're used more for story and character purpose than action spectacle. As such, it's easier to look beyond the weaknesses and focus in on the strengths of Prodigy's story and characters.
Ultimately, Prodigy is an intimate examination of the guilt and grief of its two main characters as they bounce off each other in a pscyhologically tinged discussion about life and death. While there are elements of action and a clear sci-fi premise, this movie is, at its core, a dramatic thriller that will keep viewers captivated for its full runtime. Those looking for more spectacle in their sci-fi films may be disappointed, but Prodigy can be easily enjoyed by viewers who appreciate the quiet drama of its characters. Between the compelling story and performances in Prodigy, it's an incredibly solid and entertaining psychological thriller set within a world influenced by science fiction.
Prodigy is now available on home release and will start streaming on Netflix Wednesday, August 22. It runs 80 minutes and is rated TV-MA.
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