The babes in the woods of Eskil Vogt’s “The Innocents” are some of the scariest kids you’ll see on movie screens this year. Bored over the summer holidays and living in a large Norwegian housing development, they while away the long summer hours inflicting a kind of casual cruelty on animals and other children, motivated by childish curiosity, subconscious trauma and newly discovered psychic abilities. With a careful economy of storytelling, Vogt lays out how and why these kids end up trapped in this destructive cycle.
Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), with an imperceptible expression and long curtain of blond hair, arrives at her new home, an apartment in a large complex next to a forest, with her parents and older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who is severely autistic, nonverbal. Anna is doted over by their parents, and Ida is left to face the playground by herself, where she meets Benjamin (Sam Ashraf), who wants to show her a trick.
Benjamin has discovered that he can move objects with his mind, using deep concentration to fling a bottle cap across the forest floor. It amuses Ida, and the two forge a unique friendship, based around their own dark predilections, experimenting with misbehavior and animal cruelty, kidnapping a wayward cat for a prank that turns harrowingly violent.
Though that incident gives Ida pause about Ben, they soon discover that the cat’s owner, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another young girl in the complex, has a psychic connection with Anna, able to sense the thoughts that she is otherwise unable to express. There’s a moment where the foursome exist in a kind of happy, bewildered harmony, with Anna, Aisha and Benjamin learning to develop their abilities. With Ida looking on, they become a little trio of “X-Men” characters: young kids who are “different,” outsiders and possessed of great powers that they don’t have the ability to quite control or understand. What they will do with these powers is the question driving the horror-tinged, supernatural drama “The Innocents.”
Eskil Vogt is the Oscar-nominated co-writer of “The Worst Person in the World,” a longtime collaborator of Joachim Trier, and “The Innocents” is his second feature film, after 2014’s “Blind,” which stars Ellen Dorrit Petersen, who plays Ida and Anna’s mother in “The Innocents.” Like “Blind,” “The Innocents” examines the darkness that creeps up in the cracks of domestic spaces. Ida’s quietly hostile jealousy toward her sister manifests in disdain and sometimes passive aggressive violence, but in Benjamin’s home, fractured irreparably by abuse and neglect, darkness takes hold, and spreads to Ida, Aisha and Anna with increasing danger, resulting in bloodshed and tragedy.
Vogt’s direction is methodical, laying out the geography of this space, and each child’s family situation carefully, bringing the audience behind the closed doors that their neighbors can’t see beyond. The complex itself lays out the unique rules of this world: families living together but apart, placed in relationship to each other in densely populated apartments but also close to the isolation of nature. It’s the first film for each of the child actors, and they are remarkably subtle and astute in their performances. Vogt builds the tension slowly, the camera observational, slowly pushing in or pulling out. It’s almost like the frog being boiled: Ida doesn’t realize how dire it’s become until it’s too late, as Ben spirals out of control.
It’s hard to condemn any of these kids because they’re victims of their circumstances — Ben’s violent expression is a crystallization of his trauma, pain and rage. The film maintains a quiet dynamic even throughout the most horrific of moments, and while you might expect, or even want, the film to climax more operatically, the understated tone is a radical choice for this horror film about supernaturally gifted kids. It resists sensationalism while suggesting that the world of children is far more powerful, morally complex and violent than adults are even aware of, a notion both terrifying and fascinating. They are villains and heroes, but ultimately, they are all innocents.
3 stars (out of 4)
In Norwegian with English subtitles
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1:57
How to watch: In theaters and on demand Friday
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