Are you hungry for a new flavor of film? The Prodigy movie is a cup of Hannibal Lecter mixed with a half-pint of Pippi Longstocking and a dash of X-Men spice that results in a delicious cinematic stew for even the most jaded movie goer. Prodigy is a March release from October Coast starring Richard Neil that is a surprising gourmet meal which may very well become your new favorite item on the menu this year.
Culinary metaphors aside, Prodigy is a collaboration between the writer/director team of Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal that results in one of the few movies I’ve reviewed for Popgeeks.net that actually feels like a film that could play in theaters. With an intriguing plot, engaging and cohesive performances by the entire cast and a sharp script, Prodigy really does move to the head of the class. So what is it all about?
When psychologist, Dr. Fonda is brought in by an old college friend to evaluate a dangerous patient at a top secret government facility, the doctor gets more than he bargained for as he engages in an intense battle of the mind with a young girl named Ellie, who is truly more than she seems.
There is a melancholy to actor Richard Neil as Fonda, which instantly endears the viewer to this gentle soul who is about to enter a most deadly game. The sincerity which Neil imbues his character with goes a long way toward keeping us interested as the plot unfolds into what ultimately becomes a tour de force performance between a middle aged man and 12 year old girl.
You may initially say, we’ve seen this set-up a million times. The seemingly harmless inmate who instills fear in the staff and has to be restrained through extreme means? It’s been done. But in this case we’re presented with a freckle-faced redhead who can burn a hole through you with her fiery glower, sharp tongue and perhaps more deadly methods.
Savannah Liles defines intensity as she inhabits the role of Ellie, a young girl in a straight jacket who waits menacingly for Fonda in an interrogation room, that soon feels more like the lion’s den. Where most child actors would likely focus on a single characteristic, Liles manages to run the gamut from cold arrogance to crafty manipulation, childish anger, guarded fear and more, while rarely rising above an intentionally forced monotone delivery. The truth is conveyed through her dark eyes as Fonda fights passed the facade to get through to the troubled soul beneath.
Now at this point you may be wondering why anybody would want to sit and watch a psychological evaluation for 90 minutes, no matter how strong the acting is? Well here’s the twist, Ellie is self-proclaimed murderer and what’s more, she’s got telekinetic powers to carry out her homicidal tendencies. Imagine a young Jean Grey from X-Men: The Last Stand (if you dare), who never had Professor X there to help her keep the Dark Phoenix at bay. Scared, yet?
To further the mutant movie metaphor, imagine a masterfully shot film taking place entirely in Magneto’s plastic cell with Sir Patrick Stewart engaging Sir Ian McKellen in a battle of wits over a game of chess. You’d buy a ticket for that kind of cinematic experience, yes? Prodigy takes both those concepts and mixes them into one. It’s for this reason that I’ll boldly proclaim Prodigy to be the art house X-Men film we will likely never get, but deep down truly want. Apologies to Hugh Jackman in Logan.
Haughey and Vidal do more than just set-up a camera in a room to let the actors do their thing, each shot is carefully composed for maximum tension and expert lighting gives the movie a rich texture to be savored. Additionally, clever camera angles allow the practical effects of levitating furniture and violent mental force temper tantrums to play out with the desired impact.
Adding to the tension is a ticking clock situation revealed halfway through the film, where Fonda learns that if no shred of humanity can be discovered in Ellie, she will dissected by government scientists to discover the source of her unique power set. The drama taking place inside the observation room between the supporting actors is just as entertaining as the main plot.
Jolene Anderson plays the recruiting agent, nicknamed Miss Olivia by Ellie who is torn by her desire to preserve the life of this child, no matter how devious she appears. Anderson is strong in the role, providing a convincing blend of nurturing surrogate mother and hardened government agent. She has a great foil to play off of in the form of General Birch.
Birch, as portrayed by Emilio Palame is the driving force behind terminating the “little monster”, especially when Ellie taunts him through the 1 way glass mirror about how she recently gave him a black eye. The General’s claims that the girl is a threat to national security is the bravado that hides his obvious fear of the unknown as he delights in hitting her with sonic pulses.
On a lighter note, Aral Gribble as Ryan provides some much needed humor to the proceedings. At first glance he’s just the typical snarky, overweight tech support character we’ve seen in dozens of movies for the last 20 years. Jokes about needing to wrap things up because he has a date with a freaky nympho babe are at first annoying, but the character ultimately redeems himself by the end, showing a great deal of humanity.
The explosive finale is extremely satisfying as the full force of Ellie’s powers are pit against the pure psychological heart of Dr. Fonda in a potentially fatal encounter. The pay-off has been carefully set-up by the clever script and completely earned by the performers. It’s a sweet release of tension for the audience who are completely invested in the outcome by this point in the cinematic journey.
Prodigy is a film that deserves to be seen by movie fans of all genres. It’s got something for everyone. Sci-fi fans will dig the supernatural abilities juxtaposed against the dramatic tension of the scenario. Fans of procedural dramas will get a kick out of the internal struggles for power and dominance as the true story behind Ellie’s mother’s death is revealed. There’s even a bit of that after school special, feel-good vibe at times.
Going back to my food metaphors, Vidale and Haughey are like the talented young chefs opening up their first restaurant as the buzz is building. Prodigy is a signature dish to be proud of, but I for one will look forward to what else they’re cooking up.
Prodigy is available now from October Coast on VOD.