If X-Men was ever mixed with Silence of the Lambs, you would end up with something like Prodigy. Indeed, the moment when Officer Birch (Emilio Palame) warns Professor Fonda (Richard Neil) against so much as breathing the wrong way when inside the interrogation room harks the almost identical scene with Agent Starling on her way to lay eyes on Hannibal Lector. Instead of a people-eating middle-aged man, the ‘national security threat’ is nine-year-old Ellie (Savannah Liles). Ellie is a child with an overwhelming intellect, a baffling vocabulary and endless sarcasm. It's up to Fonda to break through her steely exterior using a risky game of wits.
A dubious portrayal of mental health aside, Ellie’s case is fascinating and unpeeled piece by piece by Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal’s script. A case of disturbed childhood is thrown off course by a revelation revealed over a game of chess, after which you feel increasingly numb and unsettled. This is in no small part down to Liles, who gives a phenomenal showing as Ellie. Her disconcerting demeanour and frostiness are part of a powerhouse performance that draws parallels with Pierce Gagnon in Looper six years ago.
Fonda’s sympathy for Ellie - shown well by Richard Neil, the most likeable of all the cast - is only shared by Olivia (Jolene Andersen). None of the other characters feels the same, although many are not given the time they merit to really know for sure. Harvey Q. Johnson’s character especially seems like he has a lot more to say but not the running time to say it. Not to mention Aral Gribble as the least flattering stereotype of a technician you are ever likely to see.
But the focus is very much on Ellie and Fonda, and it is there interactions that make Prodigy such a fixating experience. Behind the complexly-worded dialogue, there is palpable tension as Fonda bends the rules to try and get inside Ellie’s head, which she is not partial to. When the film reaches the end, it is enough to give you heart palpitations. The mystery, paranoia and action are all captured extremely well, and throughout there is a claustrophobic effect caused by keeping almost all the action in one or two rooms.
Prodigy has some wordy but thoughtful dialogue and it’s a story told well by directors Haughey and Vidal. It’s about as heart-warming as a rabid alligator and twice as scary, but as psychological dramas go it ticks all the right boxes. Liles is unarguably the star, but the rest of the film is by no means left trembling in her wake.
PRODIGY / CERT: TBC / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: ALEX HAUGHEY, BRIAN VIDAL / STARRING: RICHARD NEIL, SAVANNAH LILES, JOLENE ANDERSON, EMILIO PALAME, DAVID LINSKI / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (NETFLIX)