“I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way” – Whitney Houston
Is there anything more innocent than the joy of a child’s summer vacation? Playing with friends in the sun all day unencumbered with the stresses that soon will befall them as adults, living without a care in the world, honing telekinetic abilities that one of them might begin to use for evil purposes. We all know the magical feeling of it, and it’s something that we pine for though can never truly experience again. Eskil Vogt, Academy Award-nominated co-writer of Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, explores this formative time in a child’s life in a film perhaps more deserving of a “worst person in the world” moniker than Julie from said film. A heartwarming coming-of-age tale The Innocents (De uskyldige) is not, but its slow-burn approach to some truly heart-wrenching horror truly won me over in a way that won’t be easily forgotten.
Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is a nine-year-old girl cast into a new world as her family uproots their city life to relocate to a distant block of apartments seemingly at the edge of the universe. With her autistic sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), she begins to meet other kids in her apartment complex, including Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim). As they (particularly the pair of Ida and Ben) spend their quiet summer outdoors, Ben shows Ida a special skill he discovered he has in moving metal objects with his mind. In wonder of Ben’s ability, the children all soon discover that they possess special abilities of their own, but as the long Nordic summer drones on and the children’s personal lives come to light, they soon realize not everyone will use their powers for good.
The Innocents feels like Let the Right One In by way of classic Stephen King (think It, Carrie, Firestarter, etc.), albeit flipped from a dark, cold, isolated setting to that of an unflinchingly bright summer one, one that never relents in its luminescence, refusing to hide you from what so relentlessly follows you in the light of day. This perpetual daylight, albeit typical of a Norwegian summer, lends The Innocents an uncanny, washed-out vibe that never once feels inviting or comfortable. Even in the film’s earlier scenes before things get dire, this is a world that feels oppressive in its beige, blown-out coldness. While the American in me was wistful at the idea of abundant affordable housing in a small architectural footprint (pipe dreams!), I understood Ida’s reluctance to let herself feel at home from the get go. Something is wrong here, and it’s only in due time we find out what, but Vogt’s ability to paint a picture of something so implicitly, but overtly off-putting is impressive.
It’s not often that child actors are allowed to lead such a truly adult film like this, and even less often that a group of four child actors share the screen with such unique talents across the board. While many films struggle to capture the nature of children through their adult screenwriters, Vogt uses that typically detrimental aspect of films with children to his advantage by walking a tightrope between actually understanding and sympathizing with the emotions and struggles of children based on their unique living situations, while also embracing the “outsider” perspective of writing that gives these children a surreal quality to them, all while deepening the feelings we hold for the adult characters as we get to see this bizarre behavior from both perspectives, without really ever having to leave the sides of the children.
While I expected to be a bit disturbed, possibly even actively scared by The Innocents going in, I didn’t really expect myself to be as emotionally invested as I ended up being. This is due in large part to just how incredibly heartbreaking The Innocents becomes once the horror has set in and the consequences of said horror begins to take shape. Vogt, while giving us the tools to sympathize with these children, doesn’t always make it easy on us to swallow their actions with anything but fear and disgust, initially. It’s how Vogt follows-up on what could simply be a spooky act of supernatural violence to something with real, adult repercussions to them that gives The Innocents a depth that many stories like this, even some of the best ones from the aforementioned King, can’t always achieve.
Perhaps the only thing really holding The Innocents down is its pace, which ebbs and flows between carefully calculated slow-burn to occasional dragging between sequences that could be trimmed for simple lack of necessity in the grand scheme of things. Cutting some of these scenes wouldn’t just save time, but would still keep the formerly discussed depth fully intact. It’s a small nitpick, I know, but it still remains.
The Innocents was a film I expected to be a lot more straightforward than it ended up being, and perhaps I owe that to the same feeling I had with Vogt (and Trier’s) screenplay to The Worst Person in the World in that I went in expecting a capable, if trope-ridden, indie film that dominated festivals, and left with something that made me feel a lot more emotions than I expected to from films of its respective genre. Perhaps that’s a shortcoming on my own end, but one that, in this case, has led me to letting myself be pleasantly (or in this case, unpleasantly) surprised by something unique. While it’s easy to compare The Innocents to other works (I did it explicitly in the third paragraph), there’s a uniquely cruel, but simultaneously tender touch to this film, one that is often disregarded for a higher quantity of scares or violence, but the delicate balance struck here ends up with something that rings haunting for much longer than any straightforward exercise in childlike terror ever could.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.
In theaters and on VOD May 13th, 2022.
For more information, head to IFC Films’s official The Innocents webpage.