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On a car trip two sisters sit in the back and whilst their parents’ attention is directed elsewhere one sister, Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) silently tortures her non-verbal sibling, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). From the very outset of The Innocents writer/director Eskil Vogt subverts the notion that children are indeed innocent.
Although the idea that children can harbour evil within them is far from new, with the pinnacle of this idea coming from the 1956 film The Bad Seed. Another example is Jack Clayton’s adaptation of Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, also titled The Innocents. In the latter film the evil inherited by the children has a supernatural genesis. Vogt’s film references the supernatural as a manner to explore the psyche of a child, but it doesn’t use the genre to excuse the agency of individual children within the piece.
Ida and Anna have moved to a Norwegian apartment complex that abuts a forest. In the hazy days of summer Ida (and sometimes Anna) take advantage of the lack of parental supervision to explore their new environs. Ida meets Ben (Sam Ashraf) who is a lonely child looking for connection. He is also the proverbial ‘bad seed’ whose sadistic nature disturbs Ida who does not want for cruelty in her own personality.
Something around the complex has engendered certain children with supernatural abilities. The kindly Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) is telepathic and can hear and see within the minds of others, including Anna who also develops telepathy and telekinesis. Ben is able to wield both powers. Only Ida seems unaffected by whatever causes the children to develop abilities.
What begins with play between the foursome develops into something sinister as Ben’s powers increase and with them his desire to enact revenge on those who he has perceived to have wronged him. In a child’s mind still untempered by social conditioning to learn to deal with conflict, wish fulfilment becomes deadly. There is something deeply broken in Ben and lacking any filters to tamper his rage, he embodies a kind of primal force.
In casting actors all under the age of twelve and all with their first-time big screen credit in the film, Vogt gives the sense that the children could be anyone. Each of the young actors are astoundingly effective in their roles, especially Rakel Lenora Fløttum and Alva Brynsmo Ramstad. Rakel Lenora Fløttum especially exhibits a complexity that many adult actors would find it hard to embody.
Vogt’s pacing and increasing sense of dread gives merit to the notion of slow-burn horror. The fact that only small sections of the film use VFX and those sections are subtle and necessary, makes the work powerful in its conflation of the everyday with the supernatural. Just as the children accept without question that the powers exist, the audience also does. There is no complex reasoning behind where they come from and what triggers them, they just are. There is also no moral implications ascribed to the powers – each child with their own agency uses them as befits their nature.
Vogt has dealt with supernatural/horror themes before in the script he penned for frequent collaborator Joachim Trier’s Thelma. Although the theme of wish fulfilment is similar in both Thelma and The Innocents, the theme of self-actualisation is what makes these films akin.
The Innocents is not easy to watch, there are sections that will make the audience want to look away, but they aren’t necessarily the horror infused scenes. What makes the film disturbing and linger in the mind is that Vogt has chosen to reveal that beneath the façade of what society ascribes to childhood ‘innocence’ lurks the reality that not all children are good and will be able to be socialised into acceptable adulthood. Children have their own agency that exists beyond the tabula rasa notion that they are yet to be written by the process of growing up. Using genre tropes to elucidate this view, Vogt has crafted a disquieting film wherein the horror exists in the idea of who children can be as much as the execution the film envisions.
Director: Eskil Vogt
Cast: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf
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