There’s nothing scarier than a little girl with the right glower.
Ellie has it.
Red hair tied in a bun, freckles, she’s imp-sized. But when we first see the “Prodigy,” it’s from behind. She’s in a straight jacket.
“Do not leave ANYTHING near the subject’s hands. Do NOT for any reason remove the subject’s restraints.”
As the colonel giving these instructions has a big ol’black eye, Dr. Fonda (Richard Neil) is inclined to listen.
She fixes him with those eyes, comments on Fonda’s “sweater vest” and “bargain bin” appearance, glares at the unseen observers on the other side of the one-way mirror, and smirks. “How quaint.”
Ellie (Savanah Liles) sizes Fonda up, deducts that he’s widowed or divorced, that no woman would let her man leave the house looking like a movie cliche of a distracted academic.
“That’s quite an evaluation, Eleanor.”
“Don’t call me Eleanor…Spare me your pandering.”
“Prodigy” is a “two hander,” basically a “bad seed” and a shrink (“Actually, I’m a psychologist.”), parked at a table in a darkish interrogation room, engaging in a battle of wits.
Ellie is a self-diagnosed “maladjusted pre-pubescent.” “Spoiled little psycho” say her keepers.
She is manipulative, hyper-observant and the fact that she calls her interrogator “Jimmy” suggests that she can hear through walls. Fonda? He didn’t even read her file. And it’s a thick one.
“I think I’m ready for anything at this point.”
If only the filmmakers had realized “This is just a two-hander.” The room full of guards, techs, doctors and officers on the other side of that mirror are a mere distraction. The tension, the drama is at that long table — Ellie and Fonda, the aloof, creepy kid and the kindly, elbow-patched therapist.
“Her walls are built high,” Fonda says. “It make take a while to pull them down.”
Don’t mention “love” to her. And don’t untie her hands to eat her banana and peanut butter sandwich.
“I’m going to hold up a card, and I want you to tell me…”
“I KNOW how it works.”
Dead dogs, gas chamber inhabitants, bloody car accident victims. Ellie’s not seeing happy fluffy clouds in the Rorschach Test.
“What possible reason could they have for strapping a nine year old to a chair like this?”
We wonder. So does “Jimmy.”
“Eleanor can do things…that we’ve never seen before.”
There’s nothing for it but for them to play chess. She doesn’t need to touch the pieces to move them. Apparently.
“I’m not sure I follow you.”
“That doesn’t surprise me.”
Truth be told, hanging the film on young Miss Liles would be a hard argument to make. She’s menacing, but not memorably so. She’s an ordinary looking kid whose line readings are venomous enough, but her gestures lack the coiled fury we’re meant to fear. The cat-and-mouse game lacks stakes if we (and Neil, playing Fonda) don’t fear what the monster/child is capable of.
Truth be told, there are entirely too many “mice.”
To be fair to the leads, the insipid “Dr. Fonda Explains it All For You” scenes in “the other room” suck the tension out of the film every seven minutes or so. “Punishment” for her actions (“zapping”), lame one-liners about the demonic child and what she “knows” about her captors don’t raise the stakes enough.
The effects are limited, the performances a tad muted and entirely external, even as each character is pushing the other’s buttons.
If they’d workshopped this, they might have figured out that “Prodigy” would make a perfectly suspenseful play. That being the case, leaving the “control room” inhabitants an unseen (but perhaps heard) menace, ratcheting up psychological suspense between doctor and patient in that room with far sharper, more pointed writing, cutting the constant “explaining” of it all, might have let this “Prodigy” reach its full potential.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA
Cast: Richard Neil, Savannah Liles, Jolene Andersen
Credits:Written and directed by Alex Haughey, Brian Vidal. A Gravitas release.
Running time: 1:20