Screenwriter and director Eskil Vogt is a man who vacillates between genre. From the screenplay of psychological horror Thelma to the script of heart-breaking The Worst Person In The World, Vogt uses his ability to capture the traumatic experience of being human while also imbuing it with a sense of profound beauty. This is no different in his new film The Innocents, which he both wrote and directed. But now, he’s tackling the world of young children and their concepts of good and evil.
The Innocents takes place in a Norweigan apartment complex where Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her family have just moved. Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), Ida’s older sister, is non-verbal and autistic and is the center of much of their parents’ attention. The family relocated so they could be closer to a new doctor. Ida contains a lot of resentment towards her sister, which manifests in malicious actions like putting glass in Anna’s shoes.
Ida then meets Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy who lets her in on a secret: he has special powers. As they get closer, they also meet Aida (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who befriends Anna. The four of them realize that they all, except Idea, are able to speak telepathically to each other. They also have varying degrees of telekinesis, which is at first used to play innocent games around the apartment complex. But then, Ben starts to up the ante as it were. He starts to use his powers to harm animals and, eventually, other people. The apartment complex and playground become a tense warzone, where these four kids fight for their lives unbeknownst to their families.
When I say warzone, I do mean that. This isn’t kids just hurling stones or hurtful words. Bones are broken and kids under the age of 10 are gravely injured. These kids are treated like any adult in a sci-fi or horror movie, which is refreshing. Yes, it’s been taboo to hurt and kill children on screen, but why? Children are capable of just as much cruelty as adults, and Vogt recognizes that in The Innocents. This is a film where children aren’t coddled or seen as precious. They’re human beings with concepts of what’s right and wrong, even if perhaps those ideas aren’t quite fully formed. This is a film where we watch kids in real-time processing and learning very quickly what it means to do the right thing in life-or-death scenarios.
This is a story told completely from the perspective of children, so the performances are key to really conveying the emotional weight of the escalating situation at hand. Luckily Vogt perfectly cast his foursome, each displaying an incredible range of talent that makes them both empathetic and terrifying. You become connected to these kids and your heart breaks for them as they hurt one another and try to break each other down. It’s a harrowing experience, to say the least.
The biggest issue in The Innocents arises in its portrayal of disability. It dangerously veers into the trope of making the disabled character some sort of mystic figure with special abilities. But Vogt does try to course correct in having most of these children possess a superhuman power. The film walks a fine line between exploitation and careful representation and it does stumble a bit, particularly in essentially having Aisha talk for Anna. While Vogt’s intentions were most likely pure, portraying disability in such a way only perpetuates harmful tropes.
Overall, Vogt creates a bone-chilling horror film about the violent possibilities that lay within children. He pulls no punches in depicting brutality at the hands of kids, eschewing taboo ideas about what can’t be portrayed on camera for a stunning horror film that makes your stomach turn. While disability isn’t handled carefully, Vogt strikes a tense and nauseating atmosphere that makes The Innocents an unforgettable experience. Parents beware; you may not look at your kids the same after this one.
From a tight script to gorgeous cinematography, Eskil Vogt strikes a tense and nauseating atmosphere that makes ‘The Innocents’ an unforgettable experience.