Let me start with the image on the screen. Science Fiction exists in two worlds - one is full of colors either muted or over-saturated, giving us a sense of a reality that we can find around us every day. The other is black and white, greyscale, The classic scifi of the 1950s that didn't have the budget to go colour made the most of it, infusing the cinematography with contrast, the scripts with fascinating dialogue and a style of acting that was both broad and full of subtlety. In Prodigy, we return to the latter, especially with regards to the acting, and a form of restraint in both script and performance.
The story is simple - a psychologist, Fonda, is called in to evaluate a young telepahthic girl, Ellie. She's a psychopath, and is being held by the a vague-but-menacing government agency, and they've got a dark plan for her.
Really, that's all you need to know about the story, because what starts to unfold is a deep set of personal interactions that examine the boundaries of what we can expect when we are presented with a potential end-game we do not approve of, as well as how our pasts are exploitable, and not only by those that would do us harm.
Almost the entirety of this film is about the interactions between Ellie and Fonda (played by the excellent Richard Neil who also is in the wonderful short film EXO which we're showing as a part of Mindbenders) in a single room. They have limited physical space while being given room to explore their characters. In a scene where they play chess, they work towards a result that we are certainly aware will come, but the way they work together, the way the chess game becomes darker and more deeply layered, it infuses everything from that point forward with a sense that this is a two-player game where we do not fully understand who is playing on what side.
The performances are all strong, especially the way that Savannah Liles plays Ellie. She hits her emotional marks perfectly, but also puts out the hooks for Richard Neil to hang his performance on, and for the emotional reservoir that every other character draws from. She is stunningly tied-in with her performance, and the direction of every scene is exceptional. The acting here is flawless.
The shooting of Prodigy is gorgeous, sumptuous. The kind of black-and-white contrast-y lensing that I am drawn to, not only because it gives that sort of space to the acting, but because it also allows us to dig into the idea that there is a black-and-white world that these characters live in, and all the attempts to find middle-ground result in loss, in muddled thinking. It seems that everyone understands that there is an outcome that they approve of, and one they do not, and there is no potential for anything in-between. The one who is trying the hardest to come up with the middle ground is also the one whop truly understands that they're almost certainly never going to be able to achieve it. That sort of paranoia/determinalist sensation is perfectly heightened by the shooting, and the effects chosen, and how they are handled, never stick out. That is something that even my old buddy Robert Wise would have appreciated. The acting is remarkable, the script is smart, but what really hit as the film went on, was the way it was laid out.
The pacing is phenomenal. As the film moves along, at first largely measured, but they begins to find purchase within the discussions, and then we are moved through things with greater alacrity. We are never shoved, nor are we ever so firmly downshifted that we lose the thread or momentum. There is a thoughtful pacing, and such strong writing and characterization.
I had an agenda; I would write a review, look at it through the lens of science fiction fan and festival lover. What I got was a feature film that moved me and carried me to a place that reminded me of why I love science fiction film, why I love high-contrast cinematography, why I love movies.