There are a couple of reasons I don’t ‘review’ a lot of movies day and date with (or in advance of) their release dates, preferring instead to delve into them on a deeper level once people have had a chance to see them. The first is because it’s often harder to get into the nitty-gritty details and larger themes without spoiling the experience of seeing something for the first time. The second is because I’m not overly fond of the idea of tainting anyone’s initial viewing with preconceptions. People read things differently, and while I may see one thing in a movie, someone else may see another thing entirely.
This idea of tainted preconceptions lies at the heart of Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal’s Prodigy (read our review), a deceptively low-budget film about the interactions between psychologist Dr. Fonda (Richard Neil) and an eerily intelligent and demonstrably dangerous little girl named Ellie (Savannah Liles as Ellie). If you haven’t seen it, by all means, it has my recommendation and Trace Thurman reviewed it here.
Prodigy has a lot going for it – a killer hook, a sharp visual style, a surprisingly good child actor – but what interested me most was the central theme of labels and the dangers of allowing preconceptions to corrupt your assessment of a person or situation. It interested me enough to talk more about it with co-writer and co-director Haughey. “That’s something I’ve always been onto, is that what you see on the surface isn’t necessarily what’s going on beneath the surface. Especially when it comes to people, as far as I’m concerned. So when we started this I thought this project, in particular, presented a really interesting opportunity to layer that as deep as we could because this main character was really burying who she really was.”
The primary question at hand is whether Ellie is indeed the vicious monster her captors have decided she is or if there’s something deeper and more nuanced at play, and Dr. Fonda goes to extreme lengths to get an answer. “I feel like the story is about how deeply we as people kind of hide the things that we don’t want to show the world. That then translates onscreen into something where, in this extreme situation, this guy has to dig to the point where he’s on the verge of personal harm in order to actually draw that out of someone. I think that it’s more a metaphor about how much you have to commit to someone sometimes if you want to find out who they truly are.”
I pointed out to Haughey that labels are a bigger societal problem than ever, as it’s become easier to demonize people on the other side of an argument than to understand them, and this movie plays into that. “Yeah, exactly. They’re dehumanizing her to themselves to help justify the fact that they’re ready to put her in a place where she’s not going to be feeling so good anymore. And so the Naomi character, the female agent that’s running things, is the only one that will call her by her name. Little things like that.”
Of course, the problem with labeling someone – particularly a child – as one thing or another is they then have a tendency to lean into that label. “Not only will that label stick and will she kind of lean into it, but we’re hoping that we can get the audience almost forgetting that this is a child. So that as the psychologist is peeling back these layers and showing piece by piece that there is a bit of a child here— the audience too is remembering that it doesn’t matter how intelligent she is, or how powerful she is, she is only a nine year old.”
Ultimately Prodigy is a movie about empathy and open-mindedness for the person at the other end of the table from you – something Haughey is concerned we don’t see enough. “That’s something that I find most troubling about people, in general, is that a lot of the time, you don’t see people actually realizing the effect they have on someone until they feel that they’ve directly hurt someone. They see the effects of that, and then we see them like, ‘Oh, let me take a step back and look at this from a different perspective’.” Haughey added, “When we latch onto something, we’re bull-headed and focused so totally on it until it hurts something, and only then are we willing to take a second look at it. That’s definitely something that I have observed in my own experience, that’s something that was in my consciousness going into the process writing this.”
Prodigy is currently available on DVD & Blu-Ray and various On Demand services.