Before the Omen-fonted title card even fills the screen, The Prodigy plainly spells out how it seeks to stand out in the subgenre of homicidal creeper-kid horror. (It involves an actor who resembles a psychotic Andy Cohen and cross-cutting between Ohio and Pennsylvania.)
Minutes later, it introduces the prototypical physical abnormality to suggest something’s amiss with Miles Bloom. Here, it’s heterochromia — two different-colored eyes. “Like David Bowie!” says a pal to Miles’s parents. Sure … in the sense this kid puts out fire with gasoline or teaches his mom and dad the heart’s filthy lesson. Yes, The Prodigy is so obvious that an early scene threatens to tip into Look Who’s Talking with, say, Brad Dourif’s voice. That would have been impressively crazy-pants. The Prodigy has to settle for consistent chilliness, unexpectedly skillful cinematography and the prurient charge of a child dishing out profoundly profane threats to adults.
The kid issuing the spooky, shit-eating proclamations of morbidity and menace here is played by Jackson Robert Scott. You’ll remember him as Georgie Denborough, Pennywise’s rainy-day snack in It. You’ll never look at him the same way after a did-he-just-say-that?! scene with Colm Feore’s hypnotherapist. Here, director Nicholas McCarthy exhibits great control over what appears to be a subtle visual effect, appropriately reckless abandon with the aforementioned threats and a keen sense for directing Scott toward the usual extremes in believable ways.
McCarthy’s visual sense distinguishes the rest of The Prodigy, too. A certain subterranean macabre underscores an inevitable discovery of Miles’s evil deeds. Another scene thrives on slivers of moonlight and agonizingly slow movement. More often than not, McCarthy films in full sunlight through floor-to-ceiling windows. It emphasizes the plain-sight nightmare of a kid who’s injuring the babysitter, hitting his classmates and talking in his sleep using a rare Hungarian dialect. With throwback color timing befitting its resurrected Orion Pictures logo, The Prodigy remains watchable as it indulges usual parental stupidities to push the plot forward.
MIles’s father and mother are played by Peter Mooney and Taylor Schilling, the latter best known as Piper on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. More than a fatalistic spark, Schilling embodies generic panic. By the time Jeff Buhler’s script gives her presence a purpose — wrapped up in the way Schilling often plays paragons of privilege — it’s too little, too late.
During its final act, The Prodigy introduces morally thorny ideas about comfort and class, and who deserves to survive. Buhler’s screenplay has some fun here, especially with a revelation that plays up even the childless person’s worst fear — that we can be so easily seen through, manipulated and exploited. But it never accumulates to the more intriguing anxiety that Miles’s behavior could be a regressive trait that has decided to assert bloody dominance. Again, those first five minutes see to that.
The Prodigy becomes the sort of thing where dunderheaded decisions and deus ex intrusions bump up against elegant framing of knives behind a tea kettle or amusingly symbolic placement of bathroom figurines. Forget the presence of prodigious gifts. This is just the middle of the curve.