The Innocents

The Innocents (De uskyldige) (2022)

The Innocents (De uskyldige) first published by Sight and Sound, June 2022

ReviewThe Innocents begins with an act of casual, childish cruelty. Woken by the grunting of her older, profoundly autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) in the back of the family car, Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) pinches her sister’s leg hard – after checking that their parents are not looking. Later, having arrived at their new apartment, Ida wilfully treads a worm underfoot in the mud by the housing complex’s lake, before seeing young Ben (Sam Ashraf) opposite. Brought together by mutual loneliness and exclusion from the games of other local children, Ida and Ben become playmates, cementing their bond by attacking an ant hill together. It is only when the target of their cruel games shifts to a cat and Ben takes things too far, that Ida will distance herself from him. 

Innocence here is relative, and not guaranteed by a tender age. If initially uncommunicative Anna, and her new friend, the sweet-natured, sensitive little Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), are at one end of the spectrum, then angry, “mean” Ben – unloved at home and bullied outside – is at the opposite end, and already exhibits emerging psychopathic tendencies. Ida falls somewhere in between these extremes. She is at first drawn to Ben’s waywardness, but her furtiveness when pinching Anna suggests that she has at least some sense of right and wrong, and her guilty contrition when she subsequently learns of Anna’s real if hidden pain shows her essential empathy – as does her growing horror at Ben’s ever more dangerous, destructive behaviour.    

In following these four children as they play and fight, sometimes together, sometimes apart, over a long eventful summer, writer/director Eskil Vogt, perhaps best known for being Joachim Trier’s regular co-writer, here offers, with honesty and not a little discomfort, a cinematic sandpit in which the moral development (or otherwise) of young children can be staged. Vogt is in no way wide-eyed when it comes to children’s capacity for sadism and malice, and here, as with his screenplay for Trier’s Thelma (2017), he amplifies the impact of these otherwise realist rites of passage with a supernatural element. For, like the young characters in Josh Trank‘s Chronicle (2012) and David Yarovesky’s Brightburn (2019), these four have nascent powers – telekinesis and telepathy which grow in efficacy when the children come together, and which can be used equally for good or ill. 

Here the furnishings of genre are used to highlight and intensify aspects of these children that were already there. Forming a close mental link with Aisha, Anna starts speaking again for the first time since she was four and expressing her locked-in feelings. Much as he once owned a slingshot (“I fired it at people I didn’t like,” he tells Ida, “At people I think are mean.”), Ben now similarly uses new, less conventional weapons to lash out at others from a distance – for, having met Aisha and Anna, he is able to move and break remote objects with ever greater force and accuracy, while also learning to possess other people from afar. As the least marginalised of her playmates – white unlike Aisha and Ben, and neurotypical unlike her sister – Ida alone appears, at least at first, to have no unnatural abilities, even though by the end it will be implied that most if not all children are secretly empowered, and have a collective strength that belies their individual vulnerability.

It is impossible for a film to use the title The Innocents without evoking Jack Clayton’s homonymous 1961 adaptationof Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). While Vogt’s film is no ghost story, two things ally it to the other The Innocents: Clayton’s key image of a woman’s apparition standing and staring on the other side of a lake is here several times reprised and reconfigured, as characters stand facing one another from opposite banks; and the harrowing mortal imperilment of children is also carried over, here without the adult supervision even of an unhinged governess. “We can take care of it – together,” Aisha says of the threat that Ben poses to them (and that they cannot explain to grownups). Yet in their confrontation with bullying malevolence, these pre-teens must appropriate the murderous methods of their antagonist – and Vogt’s film asks whether, after such loss of innocence, it is ever really possible simply to go back and wipe the slate clean. 

Synopsis: Norway, the present. On a housing estate, four pre-adolescent children – Ida, her autistic sister Anna, Ben and Aisha – discover that their emerging powers of telekinesis and telepathy, unnoticed by adults, get stronger when they are together. The troubled Ben’s murderous aggression forces the others to stand up to him.

strap: Eskil de Vogt’s superboosted children’s horror shows coming of age at its most chilling, tense and ethically challenging.

Anton Bitel