Fresh off of his Oscar nomination for co-writing The Worst Person of the World with longtime collaborator Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt is back in cinemas with his second feature film as director, The Innocents. A deeply disturbing portrayal of what happens when four kids discover they have superpowers, much of the film’s imagery—including brutal violence towards animals and children—is difficult to stomach. Yet Vogt’s decision to not pull any punches when it comes to the cruel acts children often commit before they have a full understanding of right and wrong is a large part of what makes The Innocents such an effective horror film.
Children at Play
If you’re looking to compare The Innocents to one of Vogt’s previous works, look not to The Worst Person in the World but to Thelma, the 2017 coming-of-age drama co-written by Vogt with director Trier. In Thelma, a young woman leaves home to go to university and discovers she has strange supernatural abilities—abilities that, when accentuated by emotions such as jealousy or desire, can inadvertently cause violence.
Thelma’s psychokinetic powers are pretty similar to the powers developed by the young children at the center of The Innocents. The story begins when nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her family move to a new apartment complex on the edge of a forest one summer. Ida’s older sister, eleven-year-old Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) is autistic and nonverbal, to the point that she will not even cry out when in pain—something that Ida exploits by secretly pinching Anna’s thigh and, in one particularly cruel scene, putting shards of glass in her shoe.
While exploring the playground and delightfully spooky forest at their new home, Ida and Anna meet two children close to their own age: Ben (Sam Ashraf), whose rambunctious naughtiness appeals to Ida until he does something horrifying to a neighborhood cat, and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a sweet young girl who quickly bonds with Anna. The reasons for Aisha’s unusual ability to connect with Anna soon become apparent: they can speak to each other through their thoughts. The impact of this discovery cannot be underestimated: Anna cannot tell people what she is thinking, but with Aisha capable of feeding words to her and speaking on her behalf, she can communicate again—including telling Ida that yes, she does feel pain, even if she doesn’t show it.
Ben has the same powers as Anna and Aisha, which also include being able to shake the earth, bring trees crashing down, and send rocks flying through the air. But whereas Anna and Aisha seem content to use their powers for mutual benefit and goofy jokes, Ben’s motivations quickly take a darker turn. With their parents entirely oblivious to what is going on, the three girls must come up with a way to stop Ben before he hurts anyone else.
The Bad Seed
Who hasn’t wished that, as a child, they had superpowers? Who didn’t read Roald Dahl’s Matilda and long to also wake up one morning with psychokinetic abilities that you could use to get back at everyone who wronged you? The Innocents shows us the flip side of that coin, in which an unhappy young boy, without fully understanding the consequences of his actions, begins terrorizing everyone from his inattentive mother to the older boys who refuse to let him play soccer with them. The film explores the idea that children are not necessarily born with empathy or an understanding of morality; they are taught those things by those closest to them. Unlike Anna, Ida, and Aisha, Ben lacks this guiding presence in his life; his mother is unpleasant and unloving. In light of this, it’s no wonder he strikes out at everyone around him.
The seemingly endless days of the Norwegian summer—almost a never-ending magic hour, all warm light and soft shadows—provide the perfect backdrop for The Innocents’ tale of childhood shenanigans gone very, very wrong. The atmospheric cinematography of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Last and First Men, Another Round) plays up the beautiful, tempting danger of the dark forest lurking on the edge of the apartment complex; one can easily believe that supernatural events could occur beneath those trees, hidden in the shadows from prying adult eyes.
The quartet of child actors at the center of The Innocents are remarkable. Vogt held workshops with them for an extended amount of time before shooting, encouraging them to exercise their active imaginations; the resulting performances feel incredibly natural and true to that period of time in one’s young life when curiosity and experimentation reign supreme—that is until something goes terribly wrong. These moments on the tail end of one’s childhood, before entering the teenage years that mark the transition to adulthood, are the days when one is most likely to have one’s innocence and naivety shattered to smithereens. The Innocents shows us the fallout from such events and leaves us wondering how long the trauma may last and how deep the scars may go.
Some may question the decision to have an actress who is not autistic play the character of Anna. All I will say is that her portrayal felt exceptionally authentic to me as someone whose younger sister is autistic and nonverbal; the behaviors were all so familiar, right down to the repeated scribblings on her Magna Doodle. The scenes in which Anna is able to speak for the first time in years due to Aisha’s help were extremely impactful to me, knowing that at this point, such psychokinetic assistance is probably the only way my sister would ever speak words out loud. Autism is of course a spectrum; to see a character on screen closer to where my sister is on that spectrum than anyone I’d ever seen before in a film felt right. But, I am not autistic myself, so I will leave any further comments on that topic to those who are. (And please note, I have never put glass in my sister’s shoes.)
The film’s most potent scenes are when Ben is using his abilities to control others around him, making them do his vengeful bidding on his behalf without even realizing what they’re doing. These moments, which include forcing a parent to do the unthinkable to their own child, will remain stamped on your psyche like the worst nightmares upon waking. The violence in the film is unflinching and bloody; if like me, you cannot stand to watch anything happen to a cat in a movie, you’re better off skipping this one. Nonetheless, one cannot deny the power The Innocents has to send shudders down your spine.
Did I necessarily enjoy watching The Innocents? No, not really; it’s not a film I plan on revisiting any time soon. But it did have a powerful effect on me, more so than many other films in recent memory.
What do you think? What are your favorite horror films involving children? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
The Innocents opens in theaters in the U.S. on May 13 and in the UK on May 20, 2022. You can find more international release dates here.
Watch The Innocents
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