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Friday, February 08, 2019

The Prodigy

Nicholas McCarthy's The Prodigy is a killer child movie that knows it's a killer child movie, and follows the rigid rules of the formula.  You know the rules I'm talking about.  The babysitter will be the first one to get it.  The family dog will be the first one to sense that "something is wrong".  And the parents will flat-out ignore the advice of the well-meaning child therapist until it is far too late, and their sweet-faced little boy is sharpening deadly knives in daddy's workshop. 

The problem that I have with a lot of killer child movies is that I never believe that the evil little tyke actually is a child.  Murderous kids are often written too intelligent, and usually come across as glib, one-liner spewing monsters.  I often think it would be scarier if the kid acted innocent, or at least did not seem to comprehend the evils of their actions.  In this movie, the little demon is Miles (Jackson Robert Scott), who sometimes acts like an innocent angel, and at others has an evil, calculating smirk as he talks like the villain in your standard psycho thriller.  There is a reason why Miles talks and acts this way, which I will not reveal.  But even if the screenplay gives Miles a reason to come across as a child sadist, it still doesn't work, because young Mr. Scott's performance is never convincing.  He acts like he's playing a make believe game where he's pretending to be a scheming villain.  It comes across as an act, not genuine evil.

Miles' parents are his loving mother Sarah (Taylor Schilling), and his more emotionally distant father, John (Peter Mooney).  Shortly after their son is born, they know he is different, as he seems to hold remarkable intelligence and understanding for someone so young, even at an infant stage.  The local child therapist (Paula Boudreau) studies Miles from an early age, and comes to the conclusion that his brain is incredibly advanced in a lot of ways, but is also developmentally delayed in others. (The movie does not elaborate much on this.) Yes, Miles is incredibly intelligent, and by the time he's 8, he's more mannered and respectful than most boys his age.  But, he also shows a violent streak that turns up now and then, such as when he beats a fellow student at school with a wrench.  He also starts exhibiting strange behavior, such as speaking in a foreign language in his sleep.  The doctors try to warn Sarah that this is not normal.  But, Sarah refuses to listen, and John just thinks their son is "special".

However, at least Sarah seems to be more willing to accept that something is very wrong with Miles' behavior, especially when he seems to be getting a little too close to her at times, making her uncomfortable.  The movie builds itself around the mounting dread that Sarah feels that her son might not be who, or maybe even what, she thinks.  As an audience, we're willing to go along with this.  But due to McCarthy's somewhat sluggish direction, The Prodigy never seems to build to any level of intensity.  There are a number of scenes here that simply fizzle out instead of creating suspense.  The movie is content to stick solely to the broad outline of a killer kid movie.  We get all the necessary scenes, all the character types we expect to find, and all the moments that seem to suggest that Miles is quite the danger to his family, and anyone else who may cross his path.  But they come across as required screenplay pit stops, not well-developed threads.

That's because Jeff Buhler's screenplay doesn't go far enough.  We don't really learn anything about Sarah, so she mostly gets to play the role of the mother who doesn't want to believe that her son could be evil, and denies the truth for far longer than she should.  John is not really given anything to talk about, except that he had a painful childhood with an abusive father, which is supposed to be important, but never quite plays the role you would expect.  Even little Miles is never grown into a credible villain, as he just does violent actions at random.  The movie takes too long to give him a motive, and once it does, it's not a very good one.  The movie is simply playing with thriller tropes and lifting from past horror movies about evil kids, and never really finds its own voice, or creates a unique spin.

As I was watching The Prodigy play out, I started becoming more involved in predicting the upcoming plot beats and jump scares that the movie would employ.  It's hard to be scared of a movie when you're constantly one step ahead of it.  This is a workmanlike thriller that is competently made and acted, but just never manages to raise the stakes.  Miles is indeed a very bad little boy, but he's not an interesting villain.

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