The Innocents: Children Can Be So Cruel

Appropriately enough, in this case, innocent is what is known as an orphaned negative. We’ve gotten so used to the opposite of innocent being guilty, as it is in a courtroom, but it technically isn’t. The opposite of innocent is nocent, as in “to know,” and to be innocent means not to be benevolent, harmless, or free from blame, it means simply “not to know.” When you’re innocent of a crime, it means you know nothing about it, and in the case of The Innocents, to be innocent means not to be pure, but “to know no better.” These are quite different things, and within its first few moments, The Innocents makes that distinction emphatically.

The Innocents explores a lot of interesting ground, looking at the familiar trope of scary supernatural children from a perspective that is both rigorously realistic and very much of the children themselves as they come into an understanding of the power they have as individuals capable of making choices that affect other people. In the opening scene, ten-year-old Ida (Rakel Leonra Flottum) pinches her non-verbal autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), believing that since she makes no expression of pain, she cannot feel it. This is, as we adults know, far from true, and the film’s first act plays out this same establishing template—of children inflicting pain on others, lacking the perspective or sufficiently developed superegos to realise the suffering they’re causing—multiple times as it introduces its characters.

Rounding out the central quartet are Ben (Sam Ashraf), an unusually angry, cruel, and neglected child, and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) who has vitiligo and is in contrast, particularly empathetic towards others. A short time after we meet our four protagonists, we learn that they each seem to be developing different forms of telepathy and telekinesis, abilities that seem to be strengthened whenever they’re together, and which Ben seems particularly willing and adept at wielding to cause harm. 

I of course love horror, however, there are some brands of horror that I don’t particularly understand the psychological appeal of, and one of those is horror that relies on cruelty to animals, and sadly this is one. These scenes are localized in the first third, however, they are pretty rampant there. One of Ida’s first real actions is to crush an earthworm with her foot, a scene I’m sorry to believe was genuine. There are some especially upsetting scenes of Ben tormenting a cat (which are mostly CGI) and although I understand the basic story purpose for these scenes, establishing Ben’s sadistic streak, there’s no entertainment to be found in them whatsoever and viewers sensitive to this kind of material (which I’d hope was most people) might be advised to give this one a miss. 

For those with stomachs strong enough to bear it, power through these scenes, and The Innocents will start to reward your patience with a surprisingly effective chiller that marries the stylings of Chronicle and Goodnight Mommy, without the latter’s reliance on cheap twists. As the children experiment with their newfound powers, it becomes clear that they are each taking different paths, and that Ben is well out of control and needs reigning in, while young Ida’s soul is still in jeopardy.

Rakel Lenora Flottum as the confused young Ida

The drama unfolds at a slow pace but each episode within it is sincerely compelling. In many ways it’s familiar genre material, melding the trappings of the superhero origin story and of the evil paranormal child horror film, but the realistic mode the film maintains keeps everything feeling grounded and never lets the viewer’s mind wander from the real children’s behaviour that is feeding this story. 

It’s a bit of an odd duck representation-wise. There is a non-verbally autistic character in a lead role, but she’s played (very well mind you, none of Music‘s whimsical nonsense here) by a neurotypical actor. Anna does also play into the familiar magical autistic child trope, but then, she’s only one of several children with supernatural abilities here so it’s a bit murky. It’s wonderful to see an actor with vitiligo in a lead role as well, but equally, on the subject of skin, the optics of a movie where the white, blond sisters team up to take on the violent, sadistic brown-skinned boy aren’t exactly great. There are a lot of different ideas in play here, and that’s what they are: in play. The movie doesn’t ever present anything in a way that feels uncritical. A movie that doesn’t want you to shut your brain off can get away with a lot more than one that does, politically speaking.

The Innocents could easily have been the kind of movie that asks its audience to turn their brains off, it sits right on the edge of some of the pulpiest genres around and can be pretty predictable, but it’s understated, subtle enough, and above all, ruminative enough, to keep your brain ticking over, sitting in an uneasy middle ground between genre thrills and arthouse provocation that is, in its way as effective as either. For as many elements one could construct a hypothesis upon, it’s as laser focused on a single idea as any movie, that idea being that children do have power, a power they need help learning to exercise. As with many an evil child movie, the real villain is parental neglect. When Ida’s mum admonishes her for leaving Anna unsupervised, you’re positively shouting at the screen: “Ma’am, where were you?!”

Of course, the real, real villain is also Ben and it’s a phenomenal performance by Ashraf. He does some of the most loathsome and evil things imaginable, but he and writer-director Eskil Vogt manage to frustrate the viewer’s hatred of him by constantly reminding us that he’s a lonely, angry child acting out when the world pushes back against him. The rest of the young cast is equally superb and as the film hinges on their dynamic being credible, it stays nauseatingly compelling throughout. 

Vogt is best known as Joachim Trier’s co-writer, with whom he penned not only last year’s runaway hit The Worst Person in the World, but also, more relevantly to this film, Thelma, a coming-of-age horror movie which might for all intents and purposes, be set in the same fictional universe as this film, as it too featured a protagonist who developed paranormal abilities she was as yet under-equipped to control responsibly. There was a lot of ’70s paranoia in that film, recalling Rosemary’s BabyThe Exorcist, and The Conversation, and there’s a similar level of genre literacy on display here—Ida’s yellow hoodie that should put any horror fan in mind of Georgie’s yellow raincoat from It—borrowing more from The Omen or Carrie, though once again, Vogt does seem to have a thing about long black snakes. 

Some of the most standout sequences occur later on when ideas of possession start to arise in the narrative, playing out in a way that recalls A Song of Ice and Fire‘s “skin-changing”, Get Out‘s “sunken place” or even the “dream-walking” from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The depiction of these sequences is hauntingly simple and yet wildly disturbing, and they’re the closest the film comes to an out-and-out horror. 

Between the introduction of this element, the reduction in scenes of animal cruelty, and simply the effect of turning up the heat on a slow-burning narrative, the second half emerges as much stronger than the first, accruing some real intensity and gripping drama that the slower moving first half was slightly lacking. Still, The Innocents emerges as a consistently striking and thought-provoking piece that despite the familiarity of its tropes, manages to offer them up in a way that feels distinct, fresh, and spontaneous. The performances are first-rate and by telling a horror story without ever seeming to know it, The Innocents is particularly primed to get under its audience’s skins.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory, and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account. Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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