Children who possess supernatural powers are not new to the horror genre - just ask Stephen King. Whether it’s possession, telekinetic abilities or communication with the dead, there’s always something unsettling about seeing a child detach from their innocence and embrace their unnatural darker side. THE INNOCENTS - the new film from Academy Award winning Norwegian writer-director Eskil Vogt - does this in a way we haven’t quite seen before. It’s subtle and thoughtful, yet equally disturbing.
Set during a bright Nordic summer, the film follows young Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), who moves into an apartment complex with her parents and mute autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Ida seems resentful of Anna, and can’t really play with her because of her condition. While exploring their new neighborhood, she meets Ben (Sam Ashraf), a bullied boy who can move objects with his mind, and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a sweet girl who can hear other people’s thoughts. While their parents aren’t watching, the children play and experiment with their new powers. There are some fun and even miraculous results - Aisha seems to have a physical connection with Anna, and even helps her find her voice again. Things soon take a dark turn as Ben, who is neglected by his mother and has a taste for cruelty, develops his powers further and becomes violent.
Vogt has crafted an understated yet relentlessly haunting film. There are no high-tech visual effects or any extravagances of the sort, but every frame is rich with feeling and atmosphere. All the child actors are first time performers, which is simply unbelievable as they carry the film with such confidence, charm and grit. Fløttum is particularly compelling with her wise yet curious eyes. The cinematography is both stunning and purposeful, wrapping its audience up in its wonderful and sinister world, and the gripping score, coming and going amongst the eerie silence, adds to this sentiment.
The film is more nuanced compared to others of its genre, but is by no means short on dread and shock. The twisted acts the children commit are already frightening, but even more so by the fact they’re being committed by children. Unlike other films of the sort, THE INNOCENTS also poses a complex question through its horror - are children innocent because they are children, and where do we draw the line? Growing up is all about making mistakes and feeding curiosity. If these children cause damage with their powers, which they are still learning to use and control, is it their fault? Or should children clearly know the difference between right and wrong? It’s a thought-provoking discourse that perfectly fits the extreme, far-fetched circumstances these young characters find themselves.
However, Vogt seems to slightly push the limit on how far the audience will go to defend these children. The overt violence committed is obviously condemned by the characters and narrative, but it’s Ida’s initial actions towards Anna that are troubling. While Anna is oblivious to pain and Ida is frustrated with the attention she gets, pinching your sister is one thing. Putting broken glass into her shoes is another, and curiosity just might not be enough to defend that one.
The first half of THE INNOCENTS is arguably stronger than the second half, with an intriguing and creepy set-up that evolves into a slightly repetitive and drawn-out finale. For the majority of its runtime however, this dark fairytale will leave viewers transfixed. Its subversion of genre conventions and courage to question the audience and make them uncomfortable is highly impressive.
The Innocents is in selected cinemas from May 19.