The lonely, uncanny and sometimes unthinkingly violent world of childhood is explored with chilling candor and exceptional skill in writer-director Eskil Vogt’s arthouse horror feature The Innocents.
Although clearly congruent with the dark themes and emotional dynamics Vogt has probed in his screenplays for fellow Norwegian Joachim Trier, Vogt’s own unique voice as a director emerges even more clearly with this sophomore feature, a follow-up to his playfully experimental drama Blind from 2014. (Vogt and Trier’s latest collaboration, The Worst Person in the World, plays in the main competition this year in Cannes, while The Innocents screens in the Un Certain Regard strand.) The Innocents is certainly a more narratively linear and debatably accessible work than the queasily sexually explicit Blind, but in some ways it’s the more challenging film given that it delves uncomfortably deep into kids’ capacity for cruelty as well as for loyalty and self-sacrifice.
The Bottom Line
An outstanding psychological horror.
Surely it’s no accident that this film shares a title with director Jack Clayton’s exquisitely spooky 1961 free adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, wherein Deborah Kerr’s governess becomes convinced her fair-skinned charges are possessed with the spirits of two dead adult lovers. The plots are quite different, and the points of view here belong almost entirely to the children rather than a hysterical adult. But the pronounced sense that there’s far more going on among the young than that which meets the eye — almost but not quite banality-of-evil territory — is a significant factor in both films.
Meanwhile, it feels inevitable already that someone will be interested in buying up the rights in order to make a Stateside version of this tale of pre-adolescents with psychic powers living in a suburban high-rise complex, left to their own devices during the dog days of summer. That said, it’s a plot set-up not entirely without precedent already in the English language, and comparisons are sure to be made to various Stephen King-derived pictures like The Shining, Firestarter and so on, not to mention manga-classic Akira. It’s even closer to 2012’s found-footage exercise Chronicle, even if the cast of that older film are properly teenagers who develop telekinetic powers after exposure to a mystery MacGuffin from outer space.
Vogt’s portrait of supernatural spawn doesn’t need any outside agent to endow the children with telekinetic and telepathic powers. Instead, as far as the kids are concerned, these abilities are just odd talents they happen to possess. The ability to move objects simply by concentrating, or to hear other people’s thoughts, is not so different for them from the joint hypermobility of lead protagonist Ida, played by Rakel Lenora Flottum (who, in acting terms, like all the young cast here, is either a complete natural or brilliantly directed by Vogt — or both).
Newly moved into the complex of high rises nestled next to a forest with her family, 9-year-old Ida can’t really play with her older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) because the latter developed regressive autism as a toddler and can no longer even speak, although her parents remember a time when she could. Instead, Anna just hums a lot and spins objects like plates or tops, locked into an interior world that leaves her seemingly oblivious to anyone else. Ramstad’s performance was clearly developed from a study of people on the spectrum, but while the tics and stimming behavior are entirely credible they don’t feel like caricature or exaggeration. Equally convincing is the portrait of kindly but sometimes exasperated affection displayed by Ellen Dorrit Pedersen and Morten Svartveit as Ida and Anna’s parents.
While Mom unpacks the family’s belongings and keeps half an eye on Anna, she sends Ida downstairs to find other kids to play with, with a cellphone in her pocket in case of emergency. (This trusting attitude toward parenting, granting a child Ida’s age freedom to play wherever she likes outside, common in Scandinavia, may seem very foreign to many Anglo-American viewers.) In the playground, Ida makes friends with Ben (Sam Ashraf, giving perhaps the standout child performance here), an isolated only child just a bit older than Ida who can make bottle caps fly sideways just by using his mind.
Later on, they come across Aisha (saucer-eyed Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who likes to “listen” to the thoughts of other people all around her, a skill finely expressed through Gustaf Berger and Gisle Tveito’s layered sound design. Aisha can even “hear” what’s going on inside Anna’s mind, a plot point viewers close to children on the spectrum may find touching or troubling, depending on their attitudes toward the condition.
More neglected by his single mother (Lise Tonne) than the other three children, Ben has a dark streak that first manifests itself in cruelty to a friendly neighborhood cat. (Animal lovers are advised to watch with caution.) But gradually, Ida’s loyalties toward her fun new friend and the other kids become torn, reflecting the turbulent emotional tugs of war between kids that everyone surely remembers from childhood.
As the tension escalates and the stakes get higher, with gruesome consequences for several of the principles, Vogt keeps the focus tight on the children throughout, which somehow punches up the sense of dread. To paraphrase an old horror movie phrase, the danger is coming from inside the house, right from the start. Although numerous scenes take place outside, the claustrophobia is amplified by DP Sturia Brandth Grovlen’s frequent use of close-ups that contrast with very wide panoramas that serve to emphasize the little horrors happening in tiny corners of the frame, like a Where’s Wally? picture — or, to cite a classier example, the white legs of a figure disappearing into green water in the background in Pieter Bruegel’s famous painting of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.
In W.H. Auden’s famous poem about the painting, “Musee des Beaux Arts,” he writes about how suffering “takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along,” and that’s literally what happens in the film’s terrifying climax, in bright broad daylight, with a few onlookers observing from distant balconies. The simplicity of the digital visual effects, there but very sparingly deployed, adds a realism to a drama that makes it even more likely to haunt the imagination afterwards.