In a sub-genre that often chickens out of letting the kids unleash evil, 'The Innocents' delivers on that front and then some.
- - Excellent performances from its quartet of youngsters
- - Wastes no time establishing the premise
- - Unflinching in its depiction of evildoing
- - Could have been tightened
- - For some, lack of explanation for the powers might be an issue
After I became a father, I wondered if I would still be able to enjoy evil children movies as much as I did before now that I could sympathize with the parents and presumably take less glee from the bad seeds' actions when it was something I had to potentially look out for myself. But thankfully, such hesitation passed, and I find myself fully engaged and amused with the likes of The Innocents, a Norwegian film that wastes zero time establishing that its young protagonist may be capable of harm.
To be clear, this is not a remake of the Jack Clayton film (itself based on Turn of the Screw), as there are no ghosts of any sort around. Nine-year-old Ida is younger sister to Anna, an autistic tween who only speaks in grunts even when in pain (the film opens with Ida pinching her sister to absolutely no effect). They're also new to a large apartment complex that is currently half-empty due to the residents taking a summer vacation elsewhere, leaving few other children around for Ida to play with. But one day she meets Ben and seemingly has found a kindred spirit, as they both enjoy causing minor, somewhat alarming mischief (killing bugs and such), only for Ben to reveal he has telekinetic powers.
At first, Ben's abilities are noticeably weak — he can't even move a small rock because it's "too heavy" (a bottle cap proves to be the ideal weight), but over the course of the film they get stronger and, you guessed it, deadlier. And you might be thinking this is enough for a film; will the troubled Ida become a partner in crime or turn on him? But no, instead writer/director Eskil Vogt brings another kid with powers into the mix: Aisha, who has the ability to project thoughts and experience visions of what is happening to others. For example, when Ida tests her sister's inability to display pain by putting broken glass in her shoe, Aisha is the one who feels it and momentarily sees blood on her own foot.
Soon enough Ida inadvertently brings Aisha and Anna together, which proves to be beneficial to both her and Ben — they all play together developing their powers, with Anna being able to kind of mimic the others' gifts as long as they're nearby, and even speak a little. But as Ben's powers increase, he begins using them to lash out at bullies, his own mother, etc. With Anna unable to fully communicate the threat, Ida finds herself in a precarious situation of being the only one who can do anything, but also the only one who can't do anything as she seemingly has no powers of her own.
The film focuses almost exclusively on the children; Anna and Ida's mother pops up with some frequency but is mostly relegated to telling Ida she can or can't go out and play at that moment, or looking at one of their injuries and asking what happened (without ever getting a proper answer). They have a dad too, but his role in the film is so minimal it's somewhat odd Vogt didn't simply write him out entirely and use that as an excuse for why their mother is so ineffective and unobservant (one has to wonder why she continues to let her 9 year old go outside alone at all after at least three others — including a child — are killed at the location).
Luckily, all four child actors are terrific, with Sam Ashraf in particular delivering a knockout performance, managing to convey Ben's anguish (he's a frustrated and lonely kid) but without ever going too far into trying to earn our sympathies like Carrie White. He is the villain, period. There's no Mrs. White to blame for his actions.
It's kind of a long film, and it could admittedly have been tightened some (again, why does the father exist?), but Vogt doesn't skimp on the evildoing; there's a respectable body count and plenty of gnarly injuries. The man seems to absolutely love leg trauma for whatever reason; starting with the aforementioned pinch and broken glass stuff, there's a pot of boiling water poured on one character's legs, a compound fracture for one of the bullies and a character who almost dives out of the way of a speeding car but gets hit in — you guessed it — their leg. Hell, even the obligatory "the evil child hurts an animal" scene (they all have one, it's just how these things go) sees Ben drop a cat from the top of their stairwell only for it to suffer a broken leg and limp away (for animal lovers, alas — that's not the end of it for the poor kitty, I should warn you).
Vogt's sound team is to thank/blame for many of these moments' success — the crunching is harder to hear than the visual is to watch. Also, kudos to them for adding in one injured party's cries in the distance after that scene paves the way to another, reminding us the poor sod is still in agony despite everyone else having moved on to other matters.
The isolated apartment building and superpowered adolescents (with bully issues) had me thinking of Let The Right One In from Norway's border neighbor, but this is not the same kind of film. Vogt isn't interested in pulling at your heartstrings among all the violence, and by his own admittance avoided the sort of "this is a puberty metaphor" that permeates a lot of horror films that focus on younger characters. Instead it's just a straightforward tale of how we are all capable of evil or good and it can really end up going either way, heightened by terrific child performances and Vogt being allowed to create genuine threats from and to his young characters, something he'd never get away with in a U.S. studio version of this story.
The Innocents has no official release date, but is expected in 2022 from IFC Midnight.
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