[Review] "The Prodigy" is a deliciously dark studio film that plays its hand too early
Raise your hand if little kids creep you out. Okay, about eighty percent of you. Don’t ask how I know that, I just do. But why is it that kids make us uncomfortable? Is it the fact that they have no filter and say the darndest things? Is it because they’re morally hollow thanks to their undeveloped brains? Or is it because they do weird shit like talk gibberish and play with imaginary friends? Whatever it is, if it’s strange and kids do it, The Prodigy packs all of it into one tight, disturbing film…
…Made by people who never want you to think about having kids again, The Prodigy is written by Jeff Buhler (Pet Sematary remake) and directed by Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact). The film revolves around new parents Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney), as they raise their baby boy, Miles (Jackson Robert Scott). From the get go, Miles displays a rare, exciting intelligence, but there is something wrong with Miles. He doesn’t get along with other kids, he talks in his sleep, and he has a penchant for violence. Sarah begins to believe that something supernatural may be plaguing Miles, but the truth is far more disturbing.
Disturbing is the key word here. Remember it, because you’ll think of it countless times while watching The Prodigy. McCarthy’s film is surprisingly dark for a studio feature. Most “kid horror” is, but in this case, McCarthy and Buhler are really pushing mainstream limits outside of straight-up eviscerating a child on screen. There is very little violence towards children in the film, but it’s McCarthy’s unflinching willingness to explore unnerving, sexual themes that will make you shudder. The Prodigy takes every uncomfortable aspect of being a parent, from your child sleeping with you to bath time, and inserts a cringe-inducing element of sexual depravity that is subtle, but stomach-churning nonetheless. There are countless books on potty training your toddler, but they just don’t make books on helping you deal with sexually depraved murder-children. I don’t do spoiler heavy reviews, and I’m not about to start, so without revealing what the trailers aren’t showing you, let’s just say that Buhler’s script is bold terror in raw form.
Expressing that terror are our three main characters/family members, all of whom are sympathetic in their roles. Schilling delivers a gut-wrenching performance as Sarah, a mother who loves her son and desperately wants him to be okay, but is faced with the horror of learning what he might really be, and Mooney as John does a fine job of the father struggling to accept the crumbling sanity of his family, though unrelated to Mooney’s performance, I’m a little sick of the overused “husband who dismisses his wife’s horrified theory” role because frankly, it’s about time we as a society get past treating women like manic lunatics in horror films. The undisputed star of the show though is Jackson Robert Scott as Miles. Scott is essentially playing two roles here (hint, hint), and is able to smoothly switch back and forth with such ease, you’d think Scott had been doing this for over a decade. Whether it be McCarthy’s direction, Scott’s ability, or both, Scott absolutely nails his delivery in certain moments, adding just the right tone or break in dialogue to send a cold tickle down your spine. I guarantee you, you won’t want your kids touching you right after watching The Prodigy. After seeing The Prodigy, I’m not even sure I could have a staring contest with my niece without feeling a little unsettled now.
While The Prodigy offers a frightening concept and solid performances, the storytelling itself is riddled with basic clichés and a poor structure that hurts the overall quality of the film. We’ve seen so much of this before, from the dead pets, to the so common its boring relationship between Sarah and John, to the eccentric psychiatrist (Colm Feore) who has a random bevy of knowledge on the supernatural, all the way down to the weird drawings from Miles (which, by the way, needs to go away, because how many of us horror fans drew weird shit when we were kids? Drawing monsters and such does not mean that you are in fact a monster). The pacing moves along at lightning speed, quickly progressing through the months and years of Miles’ life, hardly ever slowing down long enough to let character relationships develop, which would greatly heighten the impact of moments down the line.
But what’s most disappointing when it comes to the structure is Buhler’s give-away of the “twist” very early on. If you don’t guess what’s going on based on the unnecessary opening scene, then you’ll certainly figure it out once Feore’s character, Arthur, presents the supernatural possibilities to Sarah a little under halfway into The Prodigy. The inherent problem with this is that, even though the characters don’t figure out what’s happening until the final twenty minutes or so of the film, the audience has this rubix cube solved halfway through, if not from the get go. We end up feeling like the geniuses, because the viewer is always a few steps ahead of the characters. Rather than go on a horrific journey with Sarah and John, we’re at the finish line waiting for them to catch up, making for an unsurprising experience that’s about as exciting as a game of Candyland.
The Prodigy isn’t supposed to be a high-octane thrill ride though. This is a quiet film, and one that is genuinely disturbing. The violence, though rare, is bloody and shocking. The Prodigy is a gritty, nasty little film that will make your hands tremble. But it also leaves you feeling like there’s more. I get the impression that the film was heavily cut, because aside from the too-fast pacing, there isn’t enough of what is arguably the film’s greatest strength, which is the troubling relationship between Miles and his mother. Over and over again, The Prodigy tip-toes around Miles’ Oedipal complex towards Sarah without ever fully diving in. For a film which has an eight-year old boy threatening allegations of rape by telling someone they found their pubic hairs and put them in his teeth, it seems odd that Buhler and McCarthy would shy away from going deeper into Miles’ obsession with Sarah more of a focus. That focus is what Miles as a villain lacks in The Prodigy. We ultimately learn what Miles’ goal is, but it’s too little too late, making all of those unnerving, literal pokes and prods from Miles with Sarah seem pointless. In a sense, we’re conned by the filmmakers into thinking The Prodigy is about one thing, when it’s intentions are actually much simpler and duller than that, and no one likes to be conned.
Candy-coated with shades of The Omen and every killer kid movie ever, The Prodigy expertly reflects the horrors of parenthood and how far we’re willing to go to save our children. The ending is contrived and clichéd, and the script isn’t all that inventive, but what The Prodigy lacks in originality, it makes up for in a crippling eeriness that is certain to make you shiver, and performances that will haunt you long after the final reel. The next time someone asks why you don’t want to have kids, just mention The Prodigy, and they’ll understand.
The Prodigy is now playing in theaters.
By Matt Konopka
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