This exceptional Norwegian horror film is one of the most disturbing movies about childhood — and superpowers — to reach screens in recent years.
May 19, 2022
Thanks to his Oscar-nominated work co-penning The Worst Person in the World's screenplay, Eskil Vogt has already helped give the world one devastatingly accurate slice-of-life portrait in the past year. That applauded film is so insightful and relatable about being in your twenties, and also about weathering quarter-life malaise, uncertainty and crisis, that it feels inescapably lifted from reality — and it's sublime. The Innocents, the Norwegian filmmaker's latest movie, couldn't be more different in tone and narrative; however, it too bears the fingerprints of achingly perceptive and deep-seated truth. Perhaps that should be mindprints, though. Making his second feature as a director after 2014's exceptional Blind, Vogt hones in on childhood, and on the way that kids behave with each other when adults are absent or oblivious — and on tykes and preteens who can wreak havoc solely using their mental faculties.
Another riff on Firestarter, this thankfully isn't. The Innocents hasn't simply jumped on the Stranger Things bandwagon, either. Thanks to the latter, on-screen tales about young 'uns battling with the supernatural are one of Hollywood's current favourite trends — see also: the awful Ghostbusters: Afterlife — but all that this Nordic horror movie's group of kids are tussling with is themselves. Their fight starts when nine-year-old Ida (debutant Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her 11-year-old sister Anna (fellow first-timer Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who is on the autism spectrum, move to an apartment block in Romsås, Oslo with their mother (Blind's Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and father (Morten Svartveit, Ninjababy). It's summer, the days are long, and the two girls are largely left to their own devices outside in the complex's communal spaces. That's where Ida befriends Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) and Ben (Sam Ashraf), albeit not together, and starts to learn about their abilities.
One of The Innocents' most astonishing scenes — in a film with many — springs from Ida discovering what the sullen, bullied Ben can do solely with his brain. Indeed, one of Vogt's masterstrokes is focusing on how she reacts to the boy's telekinesis, as demonstrated by flinging around a bottle cap. Ida is almost preternaturally excited, and she's lured in by the thrall of what Ben might be able to do next, even though she can visibly sense that something isn't quite right. Another series of unforgettable moments arises shortly afterward when her new pal, lapping up the attention from his only friend, cruelly and sickeningly shows off without even deploying his superpowers. It's a deeply disturbing turn in a movie that repeatedly isn't afraid to find evident terrors in ordinary, everyday, banal surroundings, and Ida's response — horrified, alarmed, yet unwilling to completely cut ties — again says everything.
Vogt doesn't shy away from intimating something that society often doesn't, won't or both: that childhood and innocence don't always go hand in hand. En route to their new home in the film's opening sequence, Ida is already spied pinching the non-verbal Anna just to glean what she'll do. Later, as conveyed in economical imagery lensed by stellar cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen — who already has Another Round, Last and First Men, Shirley, Rams and Victoria to his name, and uses blood here with haunting precision — she's seen escalating that pain-fulled experimentation in a gutwrenching fashion. This side to the girl's personality isn't played as a twist or shock, and neither are Ben's skills and proclivities, or the friendly Aisha's telepathic powers (including the ability to communicate with Anna). Instead, The Innocents is positively matter of fact about what its pint-sized characters are capable of, and also steadfastly avoids trading in simplistic ideas of good and evil, or offering up neat rationales.
It's one thing to bake such complexity into the script, which Vogt does with ease. When it comes to working with children, it's another entirely to have those layers and that eagerness to reside in shades of grey radiate from the cast. All newcomers to the screen, Fløttum, Ramstad, Ashraf and Asheim each manage to possess both relaxed naturalism and heaving texture — like they're not being recorded at all, but also as if they've always belonged in front of the camera, playing out their intricate games. Fløttum's expressive face is particularly striking in capturing The Innocents' eerie yet probing mood, whether Ida is flirting with darkness herself, frightened by what may come, or doing whatever she can to protect her sister and her family. But she's definitely not alone in making chatting without saying a thing, throwing about frying pans without moving a muscle and twisting childhood larks in otherworldly ways feel as commonplace as hitting the sandpit or swing set.
They're little alike in vibe and atmosphere — a sense of fairy tale-esque dreaminess aside, although deployed in vastly dissimilar manners — but in stepping into the realms inhabited only by young hearts and minds, The Innocents slides in nicely alongside recent French delight Petite Maman. Both movies let their youthful characters exist in worlds defined only by themselves and their own rules, rather than by ideas and norms outlined by grown-ups. Neither of the two features would ever dare suggest that how its central figures experience life isn't worthy of attention or respect, or comes second to adult routines and woes. And, the pair of flicks also dive into how kids cope with everything that's constantly thrown in their direction, including by each other, with the utmost of seriousness. Here, that includes unpacking the morals they enforce among themselves, and also come to by themselves, but never explaining away something so complicated.
In The Innocents, that detailed and disarming portrait of youth sits within a daylight nightmare, too — one that's not quite on the also Scandinavian-set Midsommar's level of chills, but always festers with unease nonetheless. Parallels also lurk with the superb Let the Right One In and its account of an undead tween, with the mental scares inflicted in Carrie and The Shining, and, unsurprisingly, with Thelma, the 2017 film about a university student grappling with inexplicable powers that Vogt wrote with The Worst Person in the World's Joachim Trier. The Innocents stands boldly beside its thematic peers, however, rather than in their shadows. Its various bits and pieces have their predecessors, but its blend of uncanny candour, creepiness, empathy and intelligence is all its own. While an English-language remake is bound to follow, frolicking in this smart and savvy playground again — and making something that doesn't just play like a cookie-cutter superhero origin flick at best (yes, the recent Firestarter comes to mind once more) — won't be an easy feat.