Plodding and curiously inert, the Canadian drama Prodigals stitches together two casually addressed and underbaked storylines into an overlong slog. With more development, either of Prodigals’ incompatible threads could have sustained an entire film on their own. By that same token, if one of the two major threads were eliminated entirely, this messy, needlessly slow paced drama would still been forgettable and illogical, but it would also be a lot more palatable.
Wesley Morris (David Alpay) left his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie with big city dreams of becoming a powerful attorney. Those plans never panned out, but his friends back home don’t know that. Wesley reluctantly returns to Southwestern Ontario when the sister of a friend (Kaniehtiio Horn) begs for help in getting her brother out of prison. Benny (David Kaye) is charged with premeditated murder following brawl outside a bar with someone he straight up said he was going to kill. The case to free Wesley’s former acquaintance is compounded by the fact that Benny’s beat down has become a viral video sensation. Benny’s public defender has long since given up hope, and at this point even getting the charges bumped down to manslaughter would be a moral victory. Duty bound to his circle of hometown friends, Wesley lies and pretends to be a real lawyer in order to help with Benny’s defense.
Working from an adaptation of a stage play by Sean Minogue courtesy of the original writer and Nicholas Carella, Prodigals can almost be forgiven for not feeling entirely cinematic in nature, but the lack of drama and tension are more troublesome. The case Wesley has agreed to be a sham counsel for is cut and dry from the start, and nothing that happens along the way really changes anything. The pulse of the legal drama aspect is a flatline throughout, and there’s nothing that the case or director Michelle Ouellet can do to spice things up. Wesley isn’t particularly likable or honourable, and he’s defending someone even worse, so without some sort of genuine hook, Prodigals feels like watching things happening in front of you instead of watching material that’s having an impact on you.
This is even worse in the film’s parallel plotline, where Wesley tries to make amends with Jen (Sara Canning), the girlfriend he ditched without so much as a goodbye when he left for the big city. It’s hinted at early on that Wesley never returned with the intention of helping the virtually hopeless Benny, but that he wants to rekindle something he doesn’t have back in the city. This storyline also falls flat because we already know Wesley to be disingenuous, and his interactions with the rightfully pissed off Jen are weak and one sided.
A big part of Prodigals failure is that Wesley is a horribly written character. We’re given few clues as to why Wesley has done any of the things he’s done in his life, and why he chooses to hide behind his false accolades instead of fessing up to a bunch of people who probably don’t care if he’s a lawyer or not. The only moments where Wesley shows any sort of personality are when he’s with his friends. The only problem is that there are too many of these scenes, and they play out like a “very special episode” of Letterkenny and not as a serious motion picture or play. It’s not Alpay’s fault that the character is bad. I doubt anyone could have made a story centred around this malformed of a person work.
Ouellet really isn’t much help in the directorial department, either. Taking the script pretty much at face value, she doesn’t try to add any sort of visual flair, but she is pretty good at capturing a chilly, downtrodden small town vibe. In that respect, Prodigals feels realistic, but in every other aspect it’s so frustratingly vague and illogical that no amount of realistic local colour will ever make up for the story’s lack of tension and character.
Prodigals opens at Carlton Cinemas in Toronto on Friday, June 8, 2018. It will also be available on VOD starting June 10.