The Innocents ★★★★★

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Attribution/author:Article by: Emma Simmonds

The extraordinary meets the ordinary and mundanity battles against superheroism in a new Scandi classic

★★★★★

Not to be confused with Jack Clayton’s 1961 take on Henry James’ The Turn Of The ScrewThe Innocents might share its name with a classic but it refuses to sit meekly in its shadow. Instead, it offers its own unique spin on sinister kids, while delving intelligently into the subject of superpowers. This thoughtful, emotionally flooring and unflinching supernatural thriller is the brainchild of Norwegian director-scribe Eskil Vogt, whose directorial debut was the ironically eye-catching Blind and who works regularly with his acclaimed countryman Joachim Trier (the pair were recently Oscar-nominated for collaborating on the script of The Worst Person In The World).

Set during a pleasant Nordic summer on a woodland-flanked housing estate, The Innocents tells the story of nine-year-old Ida (the superb Rakel Lenora Fløttum) who moves to the area with her family, including her mum (Blind’s Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and her nonverbal autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). We see the jealousy and frustration Ida feels towards Anna, with her twisted curiosity regarding her sister’s condition resulting in her at one point putting broken glass in Anna’s shoe under the mistaken impression that she doesn’t feel pain.

Left largely to her own devices, Ida strikes up friendships with Ben (Sam Ashraf), a lonely and disturbed boy who has minor telekinetic abilities, and the adorable Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who is able to telepathically connect with Anna, allowing her voice to finally be heard. As the children spend more time together, away from the watchful eyes of their parents, their powers grow stronger, with Ben emerging as a threat, the other three realising that they’re the only people who can stop him.

Despite showing impressive sensitivity and drawing some remarkably nuanced performances from its pre-teen cast, The Innocents is a fearless, sometimes shocking piece of filmmaking that might stun you with how far it is willing to go. It exploits the basically uncomprehending but seemingly callous nature of kids to the absolute maximum with experiments getting nasty, recklessness becoming a problem and potency being embraced. If there are sequences that are truly chilling as Ben’s lack of empathy is explored, there are breakthroughs, too, and acts of touching companionship and unity amongst the girls.

Vogt was inspired to make the film after having children of his own: he witnessed their attempts to make sense of the world and became fascinated by their secret lives, which in turn triggered memories of his own childhood. This relationship to reality lends the film curiosity and substance; issues of peer pressure, sibling rivalry and the devastation of falling out with friends feed into the film’s more fantastical elements, generating emotional depth and poignancy. Through the character of Anna, The Innocents challenges assumptions about autism, while assigning her a key role in the story. 

The mundane yet gorgeously shot semi-rural surroundings give the film further credibility, as this extraordinary story plays out against an ordinary landscape. This extremely tense effort shows what happens when adults are unwilling or unable to provide protection, making much out of the inescapability of the girls’ situation, their lack of agency and a vulnerability to attack.

Although The Innocents is largely its own beast, there are shades here of Tomas Alfredson’s seminal 2008 vampire flick Let The Right One In (it deserves to have that film’s international impact), while the basic premise is explored with substantially more class than the comparably themed 2019 superhero horror Brightburn, from director David Yarovesky. Perhaps most impressively, given the genre it is working within, the film never allows itself to be swallowed up by stunts. It turns a low budget to its advantage, maintaining a close focus on character while the use of effects is kept to a minimum; even the grand and rather nail-biting finale is executed with ingenious, somewhat breath-taking subtlety. 

As Spider-Man has been repeatedly reminded, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, but what if you’re simply too immature to get a grip? The Innocents shows that, with their lack of impulse control and understanding, there really is nothing more frightening than a superhero kid.

The Innocents is out now in cinemas and on digital platforms.

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