In the horror genre, scary children have become worthy of a sub-genre all their own. From The Omen’s Damien to Gage in Pet Sematary and the slimy ghost girl in The Ring, horror films have proven that it doesn’t take much to turn an innocent youngster into a creepy little embodiment of pure evil. This particular sub-genre has become less prevalent in recent years, but occasionally another terrifying tyke arrives to remind audiences that procreation isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Enter The Prodigy, starring Taylor Schilling as a mother who slowly begins to realize that her brilliant son might actually be a psychopath.
The Prodigy doesn’t quite earn a place in the evil kid hall of fame, but it takes a decent crack at it with a predictable story that takes a surprisingly unpredictable third-act turn. In the brisk opening act, Sarah (Schilling) and her husband John (Pete Mooney) finally welcome a baby boy after years of struggling to conceive. Just as they welcome Miles into the world, a brutal serial killer who murders women is shot down by the cops. The central conceit of The Prodigy should be immediately clear at this point, but just in case you don’t get it (as at least one person in my audience somehow didn’t), Miles’ intelligence develops at a rapid rate; his eyes are two different colors, just like the serial killer who died; and he starts displaying some odd, violent tendencies. The thrill of The Prodigy isn’t in figuring out what’s wrong with Miles, despite the tagline “What’s wrong with Miles?” We know what’s wrong with Miles, even if Sarah doesn’t. What makes the film suspenseful is in waiting to see what Miles will do next, how long it will take Sarah and John to accept what’s really going on, and what they will ultimately do about it.
As it turns out, it takes this couple of knuckleheads a little too long to accept that there’s a misogynistic serial killer taking up real estate in their son’s brain. Jackson Robert Scott delivers on the promise of his brief role in It, with his natural cuteness working in direct (and sometimes hilarious) opposition to his complete creepiness. There are moments, however, when Scott showcases legitimate acting skill, as when the serial killer takes over and he’s forced to act like a very horrible grown man in an unsuspecting child’s body. This lends itself to some morbid humor along the same lines as Orphan, Jaume Collet-Serra’s utterly bonkers flick about a murderous orphan. That film, which had a killer third-act twist, was probably the last truly great evil kid movie, and although the two share similarities in tone and content, The Prodigy is no Orphan. It’s too bad because there’s quite a bit of potential, especially in the more ridiculous moments.
The best parts of The Prodigy occur somewhere in the second act, when Sarah meets with a psychologist (Colm Feore) who specializes in reincarnation. When the doc meets his young patient and, through hypnosis, the killer inside him, Miles has a couple of truly insane lines. Scott commits to the delivery with a straight face, which really makes this whole exchange even more bananas. Scott’s commitment to this wacky role and Schilling’s pitch-perfect reactions are what make The Prodigy work as well as it does, though it never quite manages to rise above the realm of “solid thriller.” Directed by Nicholas McCarthy (At the Devil’s Door) and written by Jeff Buhler (the Pet Sematary remake), the film is competently made, if nothing else. There are a few chilling moments, particularly involving Miles’ encounters with a classmate and a babysitter, and a couple of gasp-inducing ones that are best left unspoiled, but it’s only during the film’s climax that The Prodigy attempts to skirt predictability – and when it does, it’s really something.
Perhaps the most potent thing about The Prodigy is this: There are movies that feel like “the one we need right now” – movies that reflect society in ways that feel relevant and sometimes poignant. The Prodigy is basically the opposite. It’s a movie about a little white boy who commits acts of violence, in which his psychopathy is explained away by supernatural magic. It’s not Miles that’s evil, you see, it’s some foreign entity (figuratively and literally – the killer is Hungarian) that’s controlling this kid and making him hurt women. In this day and age, when young white men are committing horrible acts of violence at an alarming rate, and their motives are often revealed to be misogynistic in nature, The Prodigy feels more like an absurd fantasy film than a horror flick.