The Prodigy (2019)

FEBRUARY 5, 2019


Just this week I once again had to defend Orphan again, as it somehow landed on some site's list of the 20 worst twists in movie history or some nonsense. My only theory for why that reveal (which I'm gonna have to spoil in this paragraph so skip ahead if you inexplicably still haven't seen it) gets dragged so often is because people don't take the time to consider that it was a brilliant way to circumvent what seems to be a rule at the major studios, which is that evil children can't really do anything vicious. By making Esther (still played by a child actress) into an adult with a growth deficiency, the filmmakers were able to get away with letting her cut loose (the nun!), while cinematic cousins like Mac in The Good Son didn't really do much of anything beyond toss a dummy off a bridge (with no one being seriously hurt, we're assured). The Prodigy ends up somewhere in the middle of those two, but overall lands closer to Orphan on account of how surprisingly dark it is.

The plot is pretty straightforward: suburban parents have a son named Miles (the usual way, i.e. not adopted) and in addition to his heterochromia (different colored eyes) he seems to be gifted; he speaks early, he can figure out complex toys as a toddler, etc. After checking in with him a few times as he grows, we get to when he's eight, and his behavior starts leaning toward the disturbing side of things - including a possible attack on his babysitter and a definite attack on a schoolmate. Mom (Taylor Schilling) starts taking him to different specialists, but as soon as Colm Feore shows up you know he's gonna be the one to crack the mystery, because you don't get Colm Feore to be in your movie to be another cog in the wheel. The trailers have part of his explanation, but in the full scene he also explains how Miles can be cured of this new development.

Unfortunately that's at about the halfway point, and there are no other wrinkles to the plot. Worse, the opening scene (which I won't spoil here) gave us almost all of the information we needed anyway - a peculiar match cut in the first five minutes spells it out to any audience member with half a brain, so Feore isn't revealing so much as he is confirming the problem. It's a strange choice for this sort of thing, to the point where I wondered if they were purposely trying to lead us astray so they could pull out a more surprising reveal later. Whether or not they do is again something I won't spoil here, but either way it's odd to spend so much of the movie being ahead of its characters, watching them discover things we already learned for ourselves in the film's first sequence.

And that adds to my ongoing curiosity regarding the film's script and if it was reworked at a late stage. Not only is the information doled out earlier than necessary (and occasionally even repeated) but there are a few dropped story points that struck me as odd. Early on Miles causes a babysitter to fall down the stairs and cut up her foot (and perhaps break a bone or two) but the scene ends with her calling for the boy, unaware that he was at fault - and then it just cuts to later, with Miles saying he can't remember what happened. The babysitter's fate is never confirmed, nor is she ever mentioned again (same goes for Feore's character, who makes a phone call to give Schilling some more info and seems to be setting himself up to play a bigger part, only to never reappear). Likewise, he attacks one of his schoolmates at his fancy genius school, and later we see him attending what seems to be a regular public school - did he get kicked out of the other one, or did they decide it was best for him to be in a more normal environment? Schilling and her husband are also drawn with as much depth as a slasher victim - we're never told what they do for a living or anything like that, and a hint about a miscarriage or something ("We weren't sure we'd ever have you" she tells baby Miles) is never fleshed out either.

Yet, it still works for the most part! Maybe I'm more lenient given my well documented love of this particular sub-genre, but I had a good time watching it all the same. The trailer spoils one of its two best scares (and yes, it's swiped from Shock, but I suspect unlike Annabelle this is an intentional tip of the hat as there are some other similarities), but the other got me good and is more of the "Gah! CURSED IMAGE!" variety than a jump, and there's another more subtle one involving a simple line of dialogue that delighted me in its surprising harshness. Indeed, the film as a whole is shockingly dark/unsettling at times, particularly in the Feore sequence when Miles (in evil mode) tells him how the rest of their little session is gonna go. And the end is also less studio-friendly than I was expecting, which is always a plus.

Speaking of Annabelle, like that film I suspect it will work better on parents than non, because it plays on those very particular emotions albeit in very different ways; that one juiced up its scares by putting the kid in danger, this one opts for a "Would you do this if it was YOUR kid?" kind of thing though again, no spoilers so no details (I blame Pet Sematary's trailer debut for being so spoiler conscious - people were legit crying "spoiler!" at a trailer. Incidentally, same writer! Jeff Buhler wrote Pet and this). I also got some of the same creeped out vibes I get from body horror movies at times, and when you think about it it kind of makes sense. Someone once compared not knowing where your child was to having one of your own organs out in the wild somewhere, and it's true even for fathers who, as you hopefully know, never actually had the child inside of them and attached to them the way mothers do. So when Schilling starts suspecting the kid is evil and noticeably bristles when he tries to hug her or whatever, you really feel how skin-crawling and conflicting it must be for her, to be afraid of her own child's touch. There's a bit where he climbs into bed with her and tries to snuggle - it's one of the most unnerving things in the entire movie, without the need to have any violence or jump scares.

So I guess your mileage will vary depending on how much you enjoy this sub-genre. Nicholas McCarthy (whose movie The Pact is one I highly recommend, and am happy to see him getting a wide release) checks all the boxes one expects from this sort of thing, but the screenplay as presented on-screen is almost too mercenary at times, as if they didn't want to distract the audience with pesky things like "subplots" or "complications" or even "other characters" (these people have no friends or neighbors, apparently; even a brief Halloween scene seems to exist in a world with no other people). It'll scratch your itch if you have one, but goes no further than that, making it hard to recommend in general the way I could for the likes of Orphan or Home Movie. But whatever may have happened to the script or finished cut along the way, what we got is still effective at what it does, and a good way to tide us over until the seemingly more ambitious Brightburn comes along later this year.

What say you?

P.S. Hover at your own risk because it enters spoiler territory, but the movie also shares some DNA with this pet fave of mine, so that was a fun realization. However it'd be a huge red flag for most people (and again spoils some things) so let's keep it on the DL for now. Just feel free to tell me you agree (without using the name!) on Twitter or in the comments, I like to know who my peeps are for this particular film.


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