She’s restrained to a chair, contained under constant watch behind two-way glass, and attached to an electric shocker… and yet the government agency observing her is still worried about security. That’s how dangerous the young girl is in Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal’s new psychological thriller Prodigy, an enthralling mind game of a movie with an emotional, telekinetic core.
When Prodigy begins, time is already running out. The government has brought in child psychologist Fonda (Richard Neil) to evaluate the aforementioned girl, nine-year-old Ellie (Savannah Liles). Ellie is different than other girls her age. She’s a child genius, but her mental strength goes beyond a high IQ and incredible intuition. She can move things with her mind, making everything in the room a potential weapon: the table, the chairs, the pen James uses to take notes—everything.
The government has deemed Ellie too dangerous to exist on her own, but they’re still very interested in the powers that live inside her. When James arrives, he only has a few hours to make a breakthrough with Ellie and bring out her humanity. If he succeeds, she lives. If he fails… the government will take lethal measures to find out what makes Ellie’s telekinetic clock tick.
Prodigy’s sense of urgency propels the story forward and makes the movie seem bigger than it is, especially since it primarily takes place in one interrogation room. But it’s the people sitting in that interrogation room that ultimately make the film work as well as it does. Channeling the optimism of Dr. Loomis at the beginning of his 15-year session with Michael Myers, Neil is 100 percent genuine and engaging to watch as the only person who is truly empathetic of Ellie’s situation. While most of the people on the other side of the glass see a monster, Fonda sees a scared girl who’s actually crying out for help even when she wields the power of death. In other hands, the character of Fonda could have come across as too idealistic or even arrogant, but Fonda brings Haughey and Vidal's character to life in a believable, infectiously earnest way.
And then there’s Ellie, played with a seething intensity by Liles. This is a character who could be right at home alongside Firestarter’s Charlie McGee and Carrie’s eponymous prom queen, and while you may think of those movies while watching Prodigy, Liles stretches beyond homage to unquestionably make Liles her own character. Approaching the role like a poker player who can manipulate your game with one eyebrow raise, Liles brings a subtlety to Ellie that makes her all the more dangerous and intriguing. When super powers come into play in a story like this, it can be easy for the extraordinary abilities to eclipse the character, but it’s not Ellie’s telekinetic outbursts that truly make her scary. Instead, it’s the quieter moments when she’s locked in a mental—and literal—chess match with Fonda when she’s at her most unsettling, honing her intelligence as if it's a weapon that’s always just one wrong move from being unsheathed.
Not every element of Prodigy can live up to its two lead performances, but overall it’s a well-made psychological thriller that should please even those who may see what’s coming next in its narrative. Haughey, Vidal, and their creative cast and crew really poured themselves into this project, and the end result shows through the film’s poignant performances and polished aesthetic (they converted an abandoned animal shelter to make the film’s main set, and the crew did a tremendous job making it seem like a first-rate government facility). If you enjoy telekinetic child movies à la Firestarter, then you should have a good time with Prodigy, which really digs down into the heart of its supernatural matter.
Movie Score: 3.5/5