The Innocents thankfully forgoes any social commentary in favor of impressive horror atmosphere and a study of childhood’s central paradox.
When the director of an arthouse horror film about supernatural children readily admits he was inspired by his own experiences of first-time parenthood, audiences know they’re in for a treat. Which isn’t to say, of course, that Norwegian director Eskil Vogt is harboring Rosemary’s Baby-like progeny, fictional or otherwise. The four children, aged roughly 7-11, that feature in his sophomore film The Innocents aren’t necessarily evil — the film’s title should make that clear — but are instead caught in the crosshairs of a particularly traumatic moral education.
When 7-year old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her 11-year sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) move into a sprawling apartment block surrounded by woods, Ida petulantly observes that most of their peers are already away on summer vacation. In the logic of childhood, where proximity is the best determinant for friendship, this leaves two playmates — soft-spoken Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) and older, bullied Ben (Sam Ashraf), both raised by immigrant single mothers. Anna, who is autistic and nonverbal, seems content to gaze at the sky or play with an erasable drawing pad; the question of whether she feels pain is raised throughout the film, with increasingly high stakes. Restless, resentful Ida seems to take spiteful pleasure in pinching her sister’s leg when their mother isn’t watching, or leaving her alone when she clearly shouldn’t (although, to be fair, Norwegian parents customarily leave strollers, complete with sleeping infant, outside for hours; the latitude these children are given is probably unthinkable for most American parents.)
Vogt, who is perhaps best known as the frequent collaborator of director Joachim Trier, isn’t interested in creating a Scandinavian X-Men universe, where precocious youngsters are whisked to a state-of-the-art facility and carefully trained in judicious restraint. This particular foursome is much scrappier: Ben’s telekinesis is first tested on bottle caps and pebbles, and Aisha’s ability to hear other people’s thoughts manifests through light-hearted jabs at Ben’s expense. It isn’t long before their powers — particularly Ben’s — progress at rapid and then horrifying speed (be warned: an early scene involving an ill-fated housecat presages much, much worse.) Ida, for her part, is the only one of the group without obvious powers, notwithstanding double-jointed elbows.
But they are all connected through Anna, who acts as a conduit for the others; through Aisha, she tentatively regains her ability to talk. Vogt and sound designer Gustaf Berger deftly convey their groupthink through layered, multi-sensory cues: clear, bell-like tones carry thoughts and emotions through walls and stairwells, while reverberating echoes convey the empty, insular space the children occupy. The only hint of more mainstream superpower movies is when Vogt and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen indulge in Marvel-esque flourishes like rippling water and trembling leaves underfoot; it’s a little contrived, but nonetheless effective.
It’s a mark of childhood that the children treat their newfound abilities with unblinking acceptance; why wouldn’t a boy with a treehouse also move objects with his mind? Another characteristic is the intensity of their emotions, something we’re quickly taught to squash in adulthood. Each child actor is uniformly excellent, whether they’re bursting with bubbling, joyful glee or crushed by explosive, all-consuming rage. If Ben’s arc takes him deeper into darkness, using his abilities to settle scores and one-up his friends, it’s Ida who exhibits the most growth by embracing the values that are prized by conventional society — above all, empathy. The film is strongest and most harrowing when the characters come face-to-face with the irreversible consequences of their actions: in terms of pure atmosphere and tension, watching The Innocents is like experiencing a two-hour long sinking feeling.
Vogt sets the film in and immediately around the children’s shared apartment complex, trapping them in an increasingly convoluted physical and metaphysical web. The complex is huge, but as in The Shining, the scale is off; we never know which stairs lead where, or the exact location of each apartment. The Norwegian summer’s endless sun adds another layer of uncanny claustrophobia, as do the tightly twisting staircases and surrounding woods. It’s perhaps a uniquely Scandinavian version of the more familiar suburban gothic horror subgenre, in which various evil forces are set upon hapless individuals in identical single-family houses. Here, audiences can glean socio-economic differences between the families, but Vogt doesn’t offer the sort of pointed commentary we might expect from an American director. Instead, he focuses on the universal struggle of all children, despite ethnicity or social status, to shed their inherent solipsism and decipher right from wrong — with, hopefully, the bare minimum of collateral damage along the way. Above all, he unflinchingly explores the central paradox of childhood, the only period of life in which we’re guilty of cruelty but — for a brief, magical moment — innocent to the consequences.
Originally published as part of New Directors/New Films 2022: Dispatch 3.