Miles (Jackson Robert Scott) is a precocious and intelligent child, but he’s more than he seems. Moments before his birth, police gunned down a serial killer, whose soul took up residence in the infant Miles. All is well for eight years, until the murderer begins to exert himself, causing distress to Miles’ parents, Sarah (Taylor Schilling) and John (Peter Mooney).
The Prodigy wants to capture the grief-stricken gravitas of Hereditary, but it isn’t willing to commit to the acts of brutality it needs to earn that intensity. Conversations end without reaching their climax, and moments of violence are shied away from. But the movie needed those moments to underscore the danger Miles and his family are in. Without them, the stakes are underwhelming.
The plot unfolds in classic horror style with Sarah trying to uncover the mystery behind her son’s strange behavior. There’s nowhere for this story to go because we, the audience, see the answer to the mystery in the opening scene. We already know what’s wrong with Miles. We’ve always known what’s wrong with Miles.
The script understands what themes are, and that movies should have them, but it doesn’t understand how to bring them to a satisfying conclusion. Early on, Miles asks for paprika to spice up his chicken dinner, which is the set-up for possibly the worst thematic follow-through I’ve ever seen in a movie.
[Ed. note: Mild, paprika-related spoilers to follow.]
After sharing a recording of Miles speaking a foreign language in his sleep, Sarah is put in touch with a hypnotist who studies past lives. The hypnotist explains that Miles was speaking Hungarian, and asks if there’s anything else unusual about him, like specifically an usual diet. See, the serial killer is Hungarian, and he likes paprika — Hungarian paprika. This very serious revelation got a few big laughs in the theater I was in.
Schilling and Scott play off each other well, moving between a loving relationship to one marked with anxiety and mistrust. The script can’t keep up with their acting, and more often than not, their scenes end without much feeling of progress. The remaining cast gets almost no development, which makes the whole serial-killer-living-in-my-child business feel like an insular issue.
The Prodigy tells us too much too early, and misses out on important details. There’s no explanation given for why Miles or why this family, so it feels more like a parade of mild misery. In the end, The Prodigy fails to build up enough momentum to be scary, and only manages to be sad and pointless.