As The Innocents opens, a family of four are in the car headed to a new home. In the back seat sit two sisters: the lightly freckled Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), her intense stare much older than her 9 years, pinches her older, nonspeaking autistic sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Is it a playfully innocent gesture, testing a disability that she, like everyone else, can’t fully understand? Or is there something more sinister, Village of the Damned–style, at play here? This introductory scene establishes both a fresh chapter for the family and the sense of unease that pervades the entire film.
Their new living environs, set within a high-rise apartment complex located in the suburbs of Oslo, are green and open, while also feeling somehow sterile and manufactured. And these disparities are stunningly captured by the creeping, extra-voyeuristic camerawork of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (also responsible for the miraculous single take that makes up Sebastian Schipper’s 2015 thriller Victoria). The area is quite deserted at first because it’s the Scandinavian summertime and many neighboring families are away on holiday, leaving Ida few options for companionship beyond her sister. But she pretty immediately bonds with Ben (Sam Ashraf), delighted by his ability to will small objects like bottle caps to move. Freaks united, she in return shows him her double-jointed arms—but the little girl with a mean streak has more than met her match in Ben. Her squishing worms—and even putting broken glass in Anna’s sneakers—is nothing compared to his cruel tendencies (warning: you will want to avert your eyes during an especially disturbing scene involving a cat).
The two playmates are often joined outside by Anna and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a sweet-natured girl living nearby whose dark skin is blemished by vitiligo. She, like Ben, possesses supernatural gifts, able to telepathically communicate with Anna and even feel her pain. She can tune into Ben sometimes as well, but that’s a more volatile linkage. When she gently teases him one day, his anger unleashes stronger powers, and he begins using unsuspecting people as his murderous pawns—“fetching” them, as he calls it.
To escape the frequent discomfort experienced during the tender years of youth, having superpowers is a common fantasy, enabling one to feel less invisible in one’s own mind, or to break from the tedium of the depressingly ordinary, or to transcend even worse conditions. In the half-ironically titled The Innocents, these kids may discover they share qualities and powers that make them different, but far from the young Marvel mutants, they are neither science experiments nor superheroes: they’re just kids facing the real, everyday challenges of fitting in and being bullied or neglected by their families. And of course there’s some pure evil at play here, too.
The Innocents is only the second feature directed by Eskil Vogt, though he has collaborated on all of Joachim Trier’s wonderfully insightful screenplays, including 2017’s Thelma, which also featured elements of telekinesis. But his entrancing 2014 debut, Blind—about a newly blind writer, mostly confined to her apartment, who invents a progressively twisted fantasy world to keep herself amused—instantly revealed that he was an extraordinary filmmaker in his own right. More straightforward narratively but equally thought-provoking and rich, The Innocents proves the perfect follow-up, further confirming Vogt’s great ability to work with actors. Even the secondary characters of the kids’ parents are portrayed with credible humanity (Anna and Ida’s mom is played by Ellen Dorrit Petersen, the marvelous lead of Blind and real-life mother to Fløttum). But the movie firmly belongs to the children, and the performances by the four main young actors quite simply rank as some of the finest by kids ever captured on-screen. And, as often is the case with genre films, they won’t be acknowledged enough.
Some viewers may try to more safely grasp onto The Innocents as a psychological drama, but it’s also inescapably a grim horror flick unafraid to venture into the darkest territory (such as parricide and filicide, in addition to the aforementioned awful animal cruelty). The children found in the classic 1961 Jack Clayton Turn of the Screw adaptation whose title this film borrows were literally possessed, therefore not in control of their actions: innocents. But even kids in full command of their faculties nonetheless stem from a place of unpredictability, with their still-developing beliefs and personalities. The movie effectively relies on this precarity—not always knowing whether a child needs a hug or a slug—and on the age-old trick of showing that the main source of evil might sway from our initial assumptions. And, finally, Vogt’s one-of-a-kind film suggests that lost childhood may be regained by overcoming extreme trials of villainy—achievable only by taking matters into one’s own hands. 🩸
Jack Clayton’s masterpiece of narrative ambiguity The Innocents begins with a time-honored tableau: Deborah Kerr, hands clasped devoutly, imploring a higher power to make her useful to her young wards.
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