Superhero movies are not exactly a rarity in today’s film landscape, so it’s always a treat when a film tries to tackle the genre in a different way. That is exactly what Prodigy, a low-budget effort from directing team Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal, aims to do. A mix between The Silence of the Lambs and FX’s Legion, the film takes a small-scale approach to a genre that is usually told on a much grander scale, and it is mostly successful.
In the film, a secret branch of the military calls upon psychologist James Fonda (Richard Neil) to take the case of a dangerous patient, nine-year-old Ellie (newcomer Savannah Liles). As their session begins, the young girl dissects Dr. Fonda’s methods, revealing her genius-level intellect. Only by challenging her to a battle of wits does Fonda begin to unravel the supernatural mystery surrounding Ellie. Fonda finds himself in a race against the clock to achieve a breakthrough with Ellie, otherwise she faces death at the hands of the people holding her captive.
Prodigy is a solid if unremarkable debut feature for Haughey and Vidal, who also co-wrote the film together. The majority of the film takes place in the confines of an interrogation room, so much so that you’d be forgiven for thinking the film is based on a stage play (it’s not). Occasionally, the film takes a glimpse behind the curtain to check in on the observers watching Richard and Ellie through the two-way mirror (these are the weaker parts of the film), but other than that it’s just Richard and Ellie playing a mental game of chess (which eventually becomes an actual game of chess).
The film is at its best during the interactions between Richard and Ellie. Watching the two of them ping pong back and forth proves to be a highly entertaining game of wits. Even though the film never fully surprises you with the direction of its narrative, it is certainly never boring. Neil turns in a solid performance as the psychologist with unorthodox methods, but it is Liles who surprises, turning in a rather fascinating debut performance. While there are moments where it seems that she is a bit out of her element (a hint of uncertainty can be detected during more complex lines of dialogue), she is remarkably compelling as the super-intelligent Ellie.
Where the film falters is when it shifts to the people observing Richard and Ellie’s sessions. Not only are these characters (save for Jolene Andersen’s Olivia) uninteresting, some of them exist merely to tell the viewer how they should be reacting to Ellie’s behavior. Aral Gribble’s IT guy Ryan is the biggest offender, often delivering his lines in such over-the-top ways that it becomes grating after a while. His character is meant to serve as the film’s comic relief, but it is unnecessary and out of place. Similarly out of place is Emilio Palame’s General Birch, who is operates as the film’s villain, ready to flip the kill switch on Ellie at the slightest hint of disobedience. It’s not that the film doesn’t need a villain, but he has a tendency to be a little mustache-twirly at times. A more subdued approach (both in the performance and in the writing) would have been preferred.
Prodigy doesn’t have much in the way of special effects, but when they are used they are well done. The film looks good, too. This is doubly impressive for a film that was filmed on such a low budget (the production budget was significantly less than $100,000). Technical prowess aside, the film often feels as if it is trying too hard to hit its brief 80-minute runtime. There isn’t enough plot to justify it being 80 minutes long so the film has a tendency to drag (again, in those moments that aren’t focused on James and Ellie’s conversations).
It’s unfortunate that most viewers will look over Prodigy, as it is a solid debut effort for Haughey and Vidal and an excellent example of making the most out of a minuscule budget. The film doesn’t break any new ground with its subject matter, but the technical merits and the performances make it worth a watch.
Prodigy is currently available on DVD & Blu-Ray and various On Demand services.