Studio: Orion Pictures
Director: Nicholas McCarthy
Writer: Jeff Buhler
Producer: Tripp Vinson
Stars: Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, Peter Mooney, Colm Feore, Paul Fauteux, Brittany Allen, Paula Boudreau
A concerned mother comes to suspect her young son may harbor a sinister identity as his behavior grows increasingly disturbing.
Superficially, “The Prodigy’s” primary players set up the movie to be another routine ‘creepy kid’ thriller. Initially overjoyed at the prospect of finally having a child, Sarah wears the same worried weariness on her face as Amelia from “The Babadook” (review here). Her husband John has a plain name to reflect his plain personality. John’s perfunctory purpose predictably involves playing the useless father/spouse stereotype. All of John’s early dialogue means to be dismissive of his wife’s “crazy” claims about their troubled son Miles. When he starts seeing the boy’s strange behavior as a threat, the movie conveniently books John a long vacation in another location, keeping “The Prodigy” a mostly mother-son affair without having to establish Sarah as a single parent.
Meanwhile, Miles shows telltale signs of calm before a serial killing storm. At five years old, Miles squashes a bug in his bare hand. By eight, he’s marking his babysitter for mutilation and taking revenge for a perceived slight at school. Through it all, Miles eerily looks up out of downturned Damien eyes when the film wishes to visually reaffirm his evil.
Not only are typical tropes in play, but “The Prodigy” also keeps broad appeal in mind. For a movie whose marketing was premised on the question, “what’s wrong with Miles,” “The Prodigy” weirdly rushes to provide an answer within the first five minutes. From the prologue’s juxtaposition of competing screams to the final shot before end credits, an unsubtle theme of duality hits like a wrench to the head, ensuring that even the dimmest bulb doesn’t have to worry about deciphering any true twists.
Remarkably however, the narrative never crumbles under the weight of skin-deep familiarity. “The Prodigy” doesn’t need fancy new tricks when it has an impressive illusionist at the helm who can still wow an audience through deft displays of cinematic dexterity. In addition to carefully arranging pace and tone for maximum atmospheric intensity, director Nicholas McCarthy masterfully puppeteers the core acting battery into entrancing performances that take their characterizations to another level.
Jackson Robert Scott of “It” (review here) does more than flip a switch between simple good boy/bad boy personas. Scott also plays with shades of smugness, coy disobedience, and numerous other nuances that add complexity to Miles. Almost Kevin Wendell Crumb-ish in nature, Miles’ chameleon personality perfectly partners with Sarah.
Miles’ mother sails a sine wave whose peaks include being nurturing, resolute, and maternally motivated. Valleys dip into hostility, terror, and conflicted confusion. Her emotional arc works because of how Miles continually redirects its movement through uncertain actions that aren’t strictly black or white.
Sarah also surges above stereotyping by having Taylor Schilling at the woman’s wheel. Schilling’s considerable contributions to the role are exemplified in a single-second cut. During a scene where two doctors make seemingly outrageous suggestions regarding “what’s wrong with Miles,” Schilling inhales as if about to say something, then quickly closes her mouth before slumping back into listening posture.
The moment comes so quickly, many might not register it. But that simple sequence of gestures succinctly illustrates how Sarah’s reflex is to assert disbelief until etiquette reminds her to hear out the trained professionals no matter how wild their words are. Schilling continues creating Sarah out of such easily overlooked expressions that always act as accurate barometer readings of where this woman is at in the evolution of coming to grips with her son’s worsening condition.
With “The Pact” (review here) and “At the Devil’s Door” (review here), Nicholas McCarthy became a modern master of suburban psychological horror by patiently injecting dread into hometown settings. “The Prodigy” completes a trifecta of moody movies constructed from almost imperceptible moments that end up having a major impact. Grounding his film in human characters and average environments creates a strange space where macabre chills seem even scarier.
Among “The Prodigy’s” noticeable hiccups, one-and-done characters often exist to provide singular servings of information. Sarah’s friend with a newborn of her own may as well be an inanimate sounding board for Sarah to explain heterochromia to. Ditto the pediatrician but reversed, since he identifies Miles’ unusual aptitude before never being seen again.
Even third-billed Colm Feore fills a similar function, except across more than one scene. I kept thinking Feore was certain to come back in the third act to play a part more important than merely tying a bow around exposition. Alas, at least Feore’s gravitas makes his character engaging to watch, even if his casting is putting assault rifle rounds into a palm-sized pistol.
“The Prodigy’s” brisk runtime also appears to be a product of judicious editing intended to make the movie as straightforward as possible. More than one absentee segue suggests scenes were cut to keep “The Prodigy” pared to essentials only, lest it run the risk of becoming too convoluted for its multiplex good.
That simplicity had me waiting for a final revelation that never came. Although it may swim in mainstream waters, the movie still wouldn’t have hired this particular director and this notable of a cast without having an ace up its sleeve for the climax, right?
It turns out “The Prodigy” doesn’t have that hook. The thing is though, anything additional would only be unnecessarily clever icing on an already flavorful cake.
Even at slow burn speed, “The Prodigy” moves so fluidly that its downsides don’t pinprick in the moment. Once the train stops, scene skips and disappeared people may come to mind in a “hey wait a minute” way. But those are mostly ‘Fridge Logic’ flaws that don’t matter when the momentum of suspense is rolling at full speed. With credit to McCarthy for finding the line in the editing room between what the studio wanted and what the story requires, the film’s simplified structure gets the job done.
In other words, edges are perforated instead of perfectly straight. Nevertheless, sharp performances and sharper direction whittle away at clichés, carving out “The Prodigy” as uniquely unsettling in the ‘creepy kid’ subgenre.
Review Score: 75