Prodigy

It can be pretty rough being the smart kid. That was my fate in school, and often the other kids only really talked to me when they wanted homework help. Also, I was usually bored with the books that were meant for my age group, which meant that I snuck a lot of my family’s sci-fi and history books to read, which probably explains a lot. But while I was a smart kid, I wasn’t the frightening, possibly preparing to take over the world sort of genius we see in Prodigy, and for that I count myself lucky.


It can be pretty rough being the smart kid. That was my fate in school, and often the other kids only really talked to me when they wanted homework help. Also, I was usually bored with the books that were meant for my age group, which meant that I snuck a lot of my family’s sci-fi and history books to read, which probably explains a lot. But while I was a smart kid, I wasn’t the frightening, possibly preparing to take over the world sort of genius we see in Prodigy, and for that I count myself lucky.

Agent Olivia Price (Jolene Andersen) is heading a top-secret project revolving around the prodigy of the title, and she’s reached an impasse. As something of a last resort she’s recruited an old friend, a psychologist named James Fonda (Richard Neil) who specializes in troubled youth, and the youth in Olivia’s care is about as troubled as they come. Unaware of the true stakes — in keeping with his usual unorthodox approach, he hasn’t read the file about his new patient that Olivia gave him — James agrees to help.

He faces ridicule from the rest of the team, however, with career military man Colonel Birch (Emilio Palame) leading the charge. After working on this project for almost a year, what can this regular guy possibly accomplish at the last minute? Some of the best therapists and psychiatrists in the country have passed through and gotten nowhere, and Fonda looks more like an absent-minded professor than anything else. Staff psychiatrist Dr. Keaton (David Linski) doesn’t seem to mind too much though, and Fonda at last meets the subject of all this scrutiny.

Eleanor (Savannah Liles) is about nine years old and prefers to be called Ellie. She’s also securely bound to a chair in an interrogation room and couldn’t be more disdainful of her latest analyst. All this is a waste of time to her and she isn’t afraid to say so, but she’s getting what fun she can out of toying with her observers. And the chief technician, Ryan (Aral Gribble), seems pretty afraid of her — they probably all are, with the possible exception of biochemist Dr. Werner (Harvey Q. Johnson), who I think is a Vulcan in disguise. But even he has a healthy respect for her mysterious abilities, and only Dr. Fonda has no idea what he’s getting into. When he learns what’s really depending on his ability to reach this deeply disturbed — and disturbing — child, he’s determined to do everything he possibly can, even when it seems time has run out.

The build of tension is a bit uneven at times and you’ll probably guess Ellie’s ability early on, but overall the movie offers a fascinating slow unfolding of the situation through the eyes of Dr. Fonda, who’s wildly unprepared for what awaits him, though it never occurs to him not to see things through. And Liles as Ellie is impressively convincing as the genius child who can’t quite face the normal world despite her intellect. After all, the smarter you are the more impossible normality becomes, and Ellie’s as smart as they get. But even the highest IQ isn’t necessarily going to help anyone know themselves, and in the end that’s what we all need.

It’s a solid four and a half out of five, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere and adding just the right amount of hidden fear and realistic tensions among the team, who in the end all have their own goals for the project, and Ellie. Though it uses the fairly standard trope of the maverick outsider succeeding where the establishment failed, it does so convincingly and refreshingly. Though perhaps more honest and open than most, Fonda is really just a regular guy — but sometimes that’s exactly what people need.