There’s a delicate balance between preserving a mystery and keeping an audience interested. Solve the mystery too soon, or keep things mysterious too long, and there’s a risk of losing your audience. Prodigy, a new sci-fi film on Netflix, falls into the latter category, and that’s just one of its problems.
The small, independent film tells the story of a psychologist named James Fonda (Richard Neil) who is asked to help evaluate a dangerous young girl named Ellie (Savannah Liles). One minute he’s sitting outside playing chess, the next he’s locked in a room matching wits with an obvious genius who’s bound in a straight jacket. Why is the girl like that? Who is this guy? Where are they? All of this is left mostly mysterious which, at the start, results in very simple, dialogue-driven scenes that have interesting content, but little context. We know this girl is special, we know something is wrong, but why, what, and how take a while to develop, and it gets more than a little frustrating.
In the compact, 80-minute film, co-writers and directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal take roughly 30 minutes to clearly define any stakes beyond the film’s minimal setting: Fonda has to help Ellie soon. Or else. At that point, the objective and ticking clock add some much-needed tension. Unfortunately, it happens so late, there’s a good chance Prodigy will have lost you by then.
However, even if you are still with Prodigy once the story kicks in, it doesn’t offer much for the audience to connect with. The bulk of the film consists of philosophical and emotional conversations between Ellie and Fonda. However, each character is presented in such an objective way, it’s hard to figure out who the film wants us to side with or even if we should. Do we believe Ellie’s cold logic? Is Fonda’s emotional strategy the right way to go? For the most part, the film tells us both are worthy points of view. The problem becomes that if we’re led to care equally about both sides of an argument, we don’t have a side to root for. And without a side to root for, the emotional connection wanes. Even when the film reveals what Ellie can do and why she’s being held, it’s not a particularly noteworthy revelation and adds little to the complexities.
All that means these beautifully written conversations, filled with existential consequences, come off like they’re being discussed in a vacuum, devoid of anything else around them. We may as well be reading what’s happening on screen instead of watching it. Even when Prodigy starts to flex its muscles a little with some cool visual effects, it’s all too little too late.
Prodigy has some beautiful cinematography and Liles is captivating as Ellie. Beyond that, though, most of the film feels either disconnected or obvious. After all, this is a movie about a mental chess game that also uses literal chess as a device. It’s the work of filmmakers with obvious talent who just need to find a way to express it more clearly.
Prodigy is now on Netflix.