A group of Norwegian children’s summertime reverie is disrupted by the emergence of perturbing psychic powers in Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents. The frequent writing collaborator of director Joachim Trier (with whom he was nominated for the Original Screenplay Oscar for The Worst Person in the World), Vogt is perhaps best known for co-penning Trier’s “Oslo Trilogy,” which came to a close with the recent Norwegian award favorite. Yet The Innocents shares a great deal with the duo’s 2017 effort Thelma, which focuses on a young lesbian who develops telekinetic powers as a response to her oppressive upbringing. But instead of exploring supernatural abilities as a manifestation of trauma, Vogt meditates on the multifaceted (though oft-ignored) frustrations of adolescence. In the debate of nature versus nurture, Thelma posits that a child’s unfortunate upbringing is what exacerbates these otherworldly urges; The Innocents, on the other hand, examines how children’s ingrained personalities might spark these magical capabilities entirely on their own. Already at a disadvantage for sharing a name with a 1961 film that adapts Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents manages to conjure unique imagery of troubled youths—but doesn’t necessarily deliver on crafting adequate interiorities for these kids.
The enduring light of Nordic summer penetrates every frame of the film, imbuing The Innocents with a visual brightness that appears eerie in the face of its frightening violent streak (immediately drawing parallels to Ari Aster’s Midsommar). However, as opposed to a pagan death cult, it’s a quartet of children residing in the same Norwegian apartment complex that drives the film’s tense terror. Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is a reserved towheaded child who moves into a new apartment with her mom (Ellen Dorrit Pedersen), dad (Morten Svartveit) and non-verbal autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Feeling neglected due to the constant parental attention Anna receives and resentful over the move, Ida treats her sister with physical cruelty behind her parent’s back. She pinches Anna with determined force, seemingly without consequence because of her sister’s lack of reaction to physical pain. At one point, she even slips shards of glass into Anna’s shoe—the injury only discovered by her parents after they’ve been out all day with their eldest daughter, her sock stained solid crimson at the toe.
Predictably, Ida’s cruel experiments fly right under her parent’s radar, and she’s deemed Anna’s caretaker during the aimless summer days. When visiting the apartment complex’s playground, Ida meets Ben (Sam Ashraf), a boy around her age who lives in the building. Though he’s initially perplexed by Anna’s condition, Ida shows Ben the pinching trick—his fingers clamping her skin with immediate gusto. The two quickly ditch Anna to explore the nearby forest, and Ben shows off a weird talent. Ida drops small objects from above his head; it appears he can move them mid-air, throwing them across the lush grass. When they return for Anna, it turns out she’s made a new friend too. A slightly younger girl named Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) bears striking vitiligo—and an ability to communicate with Anna despite her verbal limitations. Over the course of the summer, the kids begin to grapple with the potential of their powers, with Anna quickly developing telekinetic abilities of her own. Predictably, some of these kids’ intentions are more noble than others, and what was once a mythically eccentric friend group devolves into a strained conflict that draws blood.
The entirety of the The Innocents’ success rests on its child actors, who must immerse viewers in the disturbing world of their characters while having the film’s scarier details withheld from them by the director. This balancing act proves miraculously successful, particularly when it comes to Ashraf.
Though he’s just a child, he is nonetheless imposing due to his immense metaphysical power (possession, psychic bone-snapping and a proclivity for harming small animals are just a few of his offenses). Yet he still retains a heavy sensitivity, crying and calling for his mother when the weight of his actions become too burdensome to reconcile with. He’s not simply an “evil” or “creepy” kid, he’s filled with rage as a result of unresolved issues in his social and home lives—causing him to over-react to a deadly degree. Ben’s foil is the sweet, compassionate Aisha, whom Asheim carries with grace and tenacity. Though she’s not the biggest or the strongest member of the friend group, her fierce loyalty to her friends—especially Anna—imbues her with a mighty righteousness.
With these two incredibly compelling characters, it’s almost perplexing why the film follows Ida as its protagonist. She’s reserved, and as such often yields to what de facto ringleader Ben demands. She seems to cause more problems (or blankly allows them occur) than she does resolve them, leaving none other than big sister Anna to overcome a regressive disorder in order to restore balance. In fact, Ramstad as Anna conveys much more about the parental negation of a child’s burgeoning personhood, indiscriminately heard or silenced by the adults in her life. Ida, if anything, occupies the role of awe-struck spectator, only propelling the narrative with the consequences of her inaction.
Despite the film’s thrilling horror elements and the compelling dramatic turns of its young actors, The Innocents lacks narrative clarity—a nagging shortcoming for an otherwise distinguished screenwriter. Though it consistently emphasizes the importance of protecting and fostering the well-being of adolescents, The Innocents seems to care very little about the familial dynamics that have shaped these kids’ emerging worldview. The film’s message is muddled as a result: Is it about children’s trauma, adult obliviousness, the forgotten perils of growing up? It’s hard to contemplate the philosophical center of the film when it’s laser-focused on sadistic antics that would better suit the Children of the Corn. The human motivations, interiorities and personalities of each kid are largely obfuscated by their nebulous superhuman abilities. In this sense, Vogt doesn’t meaningfully interact with childhood woes, but rather mythologizes them. Without the allegorical savvy of similar filmic fantasies concerning troubled youth (The Spirit of the Beehive, Let the Right One In, Matilda), The Innocents doesn’t leave viewers with much to remember beyond a fleeting adrenaline rush.
Director: Eskil Vogt
Writer: Eskil Vogt
Stars: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Sam Ashraf, Ellen Dorrit Pedersen, Morten Svartveit, Kadra Yusuf, Lisa Tønne
Release Date: May 13, 2022
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan