Whether you grew up with Firestarter, X-Men, or Stranger Things, it’s almost impossible to have escaped the sub-genre of superhero storytelling. People are fascinated with the limitations of the human condition and can’t seem to get enough stories about those fictional folk among us who have surpassed these restrictions. But if this were to happen in reality, how would the “Normals” among us actually respond? Would it be with open-armed acceptance, zealous worship on the level of religion, or outright hostility and contempt? If our current world is any indication, the latter option is the most likely, and that’s exactly what the new indie film Prodigy attempts to explore.
The feature directorial debut from co-writers/co-directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal has a familiar premise: A misunderstood and unnaturally powerful young girl winds up in the custody of government officials and scientists who have put her on lockdown in order to discover the secret to her abilities and, as a mask for their own fear and hatred of “The Other”, for the safety and security of innocent civilians. The research team’s last ditch effort to crack the highly intelligent, dangerous, and abrasively antagonistic child is to bring in a psychologist who specializes in treating children and brings in some emotional baggage of his own. The “Indie” badge is very strong with Prodigy, for good and for ill, but it succeeds quite well in narrowing the focus to a character level, something big-budget action pics rarely do.
The film stars Richard Neil, Savannah Liles, Jolene Andersen, Emilio Palame, David Linski, Harvey Q. Johnson, and Aral Gribble. Prodigy also features Director of Photography/Executive Producer Hisonni Johnson, whose awesome work we’ve featured here before. It’s available now on iTunes, DVD and online. Here’s a tease for Prodigy before we get into the review:
To say too much about the slowly unfolding plot details of Prodigy would be to rob you of the experience of discovering those reveals, so it’ll suffice to say that the film’s 80-minute runtime is paced just fast enough to keep you glued to the screen to see what happens next. So while the limitations of an indie film are felt here–budget restrictions, relatively few locations and sets, and tough choices when it comes to special effects–those shortcomings are far outweighed by the film’s strengths. The decision to focus the story on the developing relationship between child prodigy/powerful threat Ellie (Savannah Liles) and the emotionally compromised child psychologist James Fonda (Richard Neil) is what makes Prodigy worth the watch. That’s something that big-budget, franchise pictures rarely take the time to develop, sacrificing very human interactions for superhuman displays of powerful abilities.
Now that’s not to say Prodigy skimps on the fantastic; far from it. Ellie’s powers may not be groundbreaking, but they’re used to accent pivotal moments in the telling of the story and, when they’re displayed, they feel powerful indeed. You can understand why the mere mortals observing from another room behind safety glass and an ever-present device that neutralizes her abilities (by inflicting pain) are so afraid for their lives. And yet Dr. Fonda is willing to walk into a shared space with Ellie, even after taking the brunt of these powers first-hand, to treat her as a patient, a human being, and above all else, a child who possesses all of the normal fears, uncertainties, and confusion that every other human does. That’s the key in reaching Ellie, but whether or not Fonda can do so before time runs out and the research team resorts to more brutal tactics … well, that’s for you to find out.
Though you may not recognize the names or faces of Prodigy, the cast is well-suited to their tasks. Neil feels like a combination of Albert Brooks and James Remar, and his character’s unassuming nature and openness make him instantly likable. Fonda’s warm-hearted demeanor belies a clouded, painful conflict at his core, and Neil pulls this off extremely well. There were times I wanted to see a little more dynamism from his character, but Fonda’s just not written that way. Playing opposite his cool and calm exterior is the fiery and highly competent Liles as Ellie, the title character. It takes some real confidence in your script and your cast to put the bulk of the story on the shoulders of such a young actor–especially when she’s asked to essentially be given the Hannibal Lecter treatment for much of the movie–but Liles is a force to be reckoned with. There’s a clear comparison to be made to a young Drew Barrymore here and Liles would fit right in with a Stranger Things-type cast if they skewed a few years younger. If you’re as engaged with the relationship developing between Fonda and Ellie as I was, you’ll certainly enjoy Prodigy.
Coloring the rest of the film are the supporting characters often watching from the outside. Everyone plays their part well, but there are a couple of standouts. Jolene Andersen is perfectly fine as the government agent / sorta love interest for Fonda who pulls him into the case, but I never quite felt a romantic connection between the two of them. (There’s also a somewhat disconcerting scene between her character and Palame’s hard-nosed colonel that just felt off.) David Linski‘s psychiatrist Keaton doesn’t get to do an awful lot except provide a bridge between opposing sides once the research team starts to fall out of favor with the colonel. Harvey Q. Johnson‘s molecular biologist/biochemist Werner is an enjoyable addition who’s one part Giancarlo Esposito‘s cold and detached Breaking Bad character Gustavo Fring and one part sterilized scientist/spectre of death.
The real standouts for me were Emilio Palame‘s overstressed and under-supported Colonel Birch, who takes it upon himself to assume full responsibility for the project and its outcome; better to take one life to protect the innocent than to suffer mass casualties as a result of a weak will. Palame manages to pull off power moves without scene-chewing, a tough act for anyone to pull off. And in a delightful surprise, Aral Gribble‘s slightly tropey tech guy Ryan McCrosky adds some levity to the mix with spot-on deliveries and highly entertaining physical comedy. It’s just enough to keep the plot from getting bogged down while rounding out the cast of supporting characters and adding another layer to the whole thing. Solid work, all around.
Prodigy succeeds where big-budget superhero films cannot by focusing resources onto the interaction between an emotionally compromised Dr. Fonda and his young, vulnerable, but ironically incredibly powerful patient, Ellie. It feels earnest in its conflict, leaving you with an ultimate resolution that’s earned through that shared vulnerability. That’s something only indie films like Prodigy have the confidence to tackle because they can’t hide behind the expensive bells and whistles of studio fare. So seek out Prodigy for a refreshing spin on a familiar tale; you’ll be glad you did!