The buzz going into The Innocents was deafening, appearing on critic “best of” lists for months on end. It was with cautious optimism that I approached this dark horror drama, hoping against hope that the end result would not be yet another overhyped, undercooked concoction emulating much better films. Little did I know that I was getting a jet-black kiddie X-Men mixed with the danger of Stephen King’s Carrie. While I don’t think Eskil Vogt’s newest, The Innocents, is particularly bad by any means, one cannot help feeling it never reaches its full potential. Get ready to see “children in peril” take on a completely new meaning…
Moving with their family to an intimating high-rise, blonde sisters (9-year-old lead Ida, played by Rakel Lenora Flottum, and her autistic slightly older sister Anna, who speaks merely in grunts and noises, played by Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) may have trouble adjusting to their new surroundings. Anna does little more than spin objects and play with child toys, and Ida isn’t the best babysitter. Ida takes Anna with her to trips to the playground outside, and disturbingly pinches Anna hard, and invites others to do so. It is here she meets a destructive only child named Ben (Sam Ashgraf), who invites Ida off to a treehouse in the woods.
This friendship provides the spark for what will follow—Ben shows off a “slingshot” trick where he is able to make caps fly using his mind. Ida too discovers that she and Anna may also possess hidden talents. The addition of a fourth child into the equation, a sweet girl who can hear the thoughts of those around her named Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), is key to unlocking Anna’s speech. As with most childhood games, Ida soon finds herself torn in different directions as she tries to navigate her home life and the unpredictability of these newfound powers.
A sequence where Ben and Ida torment a cat is the first hint of a darker nature to the powers that flirt dangerously with their lives. I was expecting a darkness considering the subject matter, but child death is a very serious reality in this film that one needs to be prepared for ahead of time. Animal cruelty, as mentioned, is also prevalent, and highly upsetting. The way the film decides to handle the character of Anna made me slightly uneasy, and I have no doubt it will probably offend those ultra-sensitive to autism-related subject matter.
From nearly top to bottom, everything about The Innocents screams “pretentious” from the highest rooftops. The acting is excellent and completely natural, but the script needed further definition. This isn’t one’s traditional horror film, nor does it follow conventions related to discovering one possessing superpowers. Instead, Vogt laser-focuses on this friend group of children, and the adults take a lengthy backseat. Growing up can be horrific of its own accord, but The Innocents does little to emulate progress in the coming-of-age arena. Weirdly enough, I could see an American remake that ups the style and nastiness being considerably more effective.
The Innocents violently snaps bones when it premieres in theaters on Friday, May 13th. It screened at 2022’s Cleveland International Film Festival.