Written by: Jeff Buhler
Directed by: Nicholas McCarthy
Starring: Taylor Schilling, Jackson Robert Scott, and Paul Fauteux
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
What's wrong with Miles?
Killer kid movies tend to go one of two directions. Naturally, they can be genuinely unnerving and suspenseful (because, hello, itís KILLER KIDS); perhaps more unnaturally, they can be completely unhinged, lunatic nonsense (because, well, you know, itís KILLER KIDS). Rarely do these things just slip quietly between the cracks and land in neutral, forgettable ground. If someoneís going to have the guts to make a movie about homicidal children, theyíre damn sure going to make it memorable, right? The Prodigy, however, begs to differ. Remarkable because itís largely unremarkable, this latest entry into a demented canon splits the difference between the sub-genreís two extremes, fumbling a surefire premise in the process. With the exception of a few inspiredóif not derangedóbursts, The Prodigy struggles to figure out if itís supposed to be disturbing drama or schlocky nonsense. Ultimately, itís not really either.
Part of the problem is that it gives away it turns that premise into a hook too early: we open, suspiciously enough, not on a creepy kid at all but rather a woman in distress running through rural Ohio. Upon encountering some help, she reveals a stump in place of a now-severed hand, cryptically insisting that a man took if from her. At the same time in Pennsylvania, Sarah and John (Taylor Schilling & Peter Mooney) are set to welcome their first child into the world when she goes into labor. Their utter joy unfolds parallel to the scene in Ohio, where authorities raid a serial killerís (Paul Fauteauxís) grungy lair and mow him down with a hail of gunfire. His death coincides with the birth of Miles, a baby boy who grows up to be preternaturally brilliant but slightly disturbed.
For a movie boasting the tagline ďwhatís wrong with Miles?,Ē The Prodigy isnít at all concerned with drawing out any mystery: itís all right there in the damn prologue, where we immediately learn a dead serial killer has inhabited the body of this child. As such, weíre left to watch his parents play catch-up to arrive at the truth eight years later, when heís coming into his own as a bright student and a ruthless maniac at a posh private school. Fast-forwarding through Milesís childhood essentially glides over some creepy bits: director Nicolas McCarthy treats us to a few odd moments as he skims through these younger years, a choice that largely robs the film of the chance to settle in and creep out the audience. That sort of movie is surely lurking within The Prodigy, but this version of it has little interest in crafting a slow burn.
Instead, itís in a hurry to unleash Miles and get to the ďgood stuff:Ē mangled babysitters, bludgeoned classmates, eviscerated dogs, tense psycho-regression therapy sessions, and several uncomfortable moments between mother and son. Itís a typical assortment of creepy kid beats, with some proving to push The Prodigy into pretty dark, squeamish territory. These things usually involve profane outbursts, and this one doesnít disappoint: one of the ways you know The Prodigy sometimes works is that youíre occasionally taken aback by Milesís behavior. A psychologistís (Colm Feore) attempt to uncover the serial killerís identity goes south very quickly when the madmanóthrough Milesís innocent faÁadeómakes a horrific, obscene threat thatís squirm-worthy just because itís so stark and perverse.
But these moments are few and far between, often despite the solid craftsmanship on display. A movie like this obviously only goes as far as its creepy kid can take it, and Jackson Robert Scott brings everything you want to the role of Miles: heís appropriately doting and sweet when the young boyís soul is in charge, but absolutely menacing and icy when the serial killerís personality emerges. Like most of the films in this genre, The Prodigy thrives on the dissonance between the innocent vessel and the corrupted soul, and it arguably does so more than most by having Miles constantly shift between two personalities. One minute, heís shooting icy glares and insisting his father will die, the next heís just a normal, frightened boy with no memory of what heís done.
His parents begin to develop a natural distrust, too: Johnís ready to ship him off to an institution, while Sarah grows wary of even being in the same room as him. A scene where Miles asks to sleep in the bed with her becomes quite uncomfortable, and Sarahís growing revulsion of her own childís touch becomes palpable. Itís almost a good enough hook for The Prodigy to lean upon for the rest of its runtime, as Schillingís performance is quite invested. At once repulsed and desperate to save her sonís soul, her ordeal becomes compelling enough to almost convince you thereís great drama here. A late (if not predictable) turn of events forces her into a harrowing corner by exploiting a diabolical moral quandary during the climax, adding another layer of thematic heft to the proceedings.
Likewise, McCarthy wrings enough tension and unnerving moments to create the impression of an effective horror movie. The Prodigy is appropriately bathed in brooding, menacing shadows, which produce a nice handful of jolts, including one that homages Bavaís Shock. These fleeting, subtly uncanny shots often find a match vicious, violent outbursts that carve an even deeper mean streak. The Prodigy is positively fucked at times, particularly since it remains committed to being bleak as hell. Even its brief glimmer of hope involves bloodshed, and itís snuffed out anyway; in fact, the plot spirals even further into madness, so much so that it nearly unhinges itself into that lunatic plane of utter schlock.
But for whatever reason, The Prodigy never quite hits that gear. Itís odd: even as I recount its events, I have to admit it seems positively insane, and itís certainly commendable that it doesnít pull punches in a way many studio movies might. Something about McCarthyís direction feels a little bit too restrained, though: he might not pull punches, but he doesnít throw those punches with the sort of wild, reckless abandon you might crave from this sort of thing. Whatís left is a schlock movie somewhat in denial since its dramatic potential is also undercut by jagged, patchwork editing (just count the number of voiceover ADR work that screams obvious plot points to those sitting in the cheap seats) that reduces this to the breeziest possible version of this tale.
Itís a thoroughly fine take, albeit one that squanders the childhood reincarnation angle, a spooky real-world phenomenon thatís gone largely untapped for 40 years. Obviously, this isnít the first prodigy to disappoint; like other whiz kids who were told they were special but eventually flamed out, it's mostly reminder of wasted potential.
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