June 3, 2022
by Carla Hay
Directed by Eskil Vogt
Norwegian with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Norway, the horror film “The Innocents” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with one black person, one multiracial person and a few people of Middle Eastern heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: Four children discover that they have psychic powers, and at least one of the children uses those powers for sinister and deadly reasons.
Culture Audience: “The Innocents” will appeal primarily to people interested in watching creepy and disturbing horror movies about homicidal children.
“The Innocents” sometimes falters with sluggish pacing, but this horror movie excels in immersing viewers in an atmosphere filled with deliberate torture and dread. A lot of the terror happens without a word being spoken. A warning to sensitive viewers: “The Innocents” is not the type of movie you will want to see if you get deeply disturbed by seeing on-screen depictions of fatal animal cruelty and children who murder people.
Written and directed by Eskil Vogt, “The Innocents” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, which also world premiered “The Worst Person in the World,” a romantic comedy/drama co-written by Vogt. “The Worst Person In the World” (which received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay) has much better character development and more engaging pacing than “The Innocents,” but Vogt should be commended for writing two very different movies that are quite memorable.
“The Innocents,” which takes place during a summer in an unnamed city in Norway, begins with a middle-class family of four moving into a high-rise apartment building. As an example of how the adults in the movie are secondary to the kids in the story, the names of the parents in “The Innocents” are not mentioned. The adults in this movie also leave their underage kids without adult supervision for long stretches of time.
The family moving into the apartment complex has relocated because the father (played by Morten Svartveit) has gotten an unnamed job in the area. The mother (played by Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is a homemaker. These parents have two daughters: Anna (played by Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) and Ida (played by Rakel Lenora Fløttum), who have some problems in their relationship, but the two sisters mostly get along with each other.
Anna, who is 11 years old, has regressive autism. At 4 years old, she stopped speaking, although she can make sounds to express herself. Later in the movie, Anna begins speaking again, using limited vocabulary. Ida is about 7 or 8 years old. Ida is often tasked with looking after Anna, and it causes Ida to sometimes feel resentment toward Anna. Ida also feels that Anna gets too much attention from their parents.
Two other children who live in the apartment building will have their lives forever intertwined with Anna and Ida. Their names are Ben and Aisha. And all four children find out that they can connect with each other on a pyschic level. Because all of the children are on a summer break, there’s no mention of them going to school.
Ben (played by Sam Ashraf), who is about 9 or 10 years old, is a sullen loner who likes to say and do cruel things. Ben is an only child who lives with his single mother (played by Lisa Tønne), who often yells at him because she thinks he can’t do anything right. Ben’s father is not mentioned in the movie, which implies that this father is not in Ben’s life.
Aisha (played by Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who is about 7 or 8 years old, is also an only child. She lives with her mother (played by Kadra Yusuf), who seems to be recently divorced or separated. Pictures of Aisha’s father are in the household, and he’s talked about as if he’s still alive, but he is not living in the household. Unlike Ben, Aisha is a kind and empathetic child. When she sees her mother crying, she feels her mother’s emotional pain too. Aisha can also feel other people’s physical pain.
The apartment building where the children live has other apartment buildings nearby. There’s a playground at the center of these apartment buildings. It’s at this playground where Ben and Ida meet for the first time. There’s also a wooded area nearby where the kids play. The playground and the woods are the two areas where most of the kids’ activities happen in the movie.
Shortly after meeting in the playground, Ida and Ben walk into the nearby wooded area. He tells her that he used to live in a place where he would climb up in a tree and fire a slingshot at “people I think are mean.” It’s the first sign that Ben has a sadistic side to him. And if it isn’t obvious enough that Ben is going to be the biggest villain, there are multiple of scenes of Ida seeing Ben creepily looking at her and other kids from a distance.
Anna and Aisha are the first to show a psychic connection to each other. When Anna thinks something, Aisha often does it, and vice versa. They can also feel each other’s pain each time one of them gets an injury. At first, Anna and Aisha don’t understand what’s going on, until they meet each other and find out why they have an instant bond.
Ida and Ben also discover they have their own pyschic powers, but they find out at different times. Ben’s psychic power includes telekenisis and mind control, thereby making him much more threatening than the other three kids. At first, Ben keep his power a secret, but all four kids eventually find out about each other’s powers. How they all find out are among the best scenes in the movie.
When Ben and Ida start hanging out with each other, Ida thinks that Ben is rebellious but harmless. Ida believes she’s a rebellious loner too, so she’s at first happy to meet someone who seems to be like she is. Ida changes her mind about Ben being someone she can trust when Ben does something heinous to a cat. After witnessing this animal cruelty, Ida tries to avoid Ben, but Ida figures out that things often don’t end well for people who reject Ben.
A long stretch of the “The Innocents” is kind of a monotonous zone where not much happens after the killing starts, because it’s about the kids keeping their powers a secret from anyone else. They don’t tell any adults because they don’t think the adults will believe them. Or even worse: If they are believed, the kids think that they will be considered “freaks” and possibly taken away for scientific experiments.
Not that the adults seem to notice a lot of what these kids are doing anyway. If there’s any big flaw in the movie, it’s that the parents seem very neglectful and uncaring about what their pre-teen kids are doing when adults are not around. The parents seem vaguely aware that their kids are making new friends and hanging out at the playground, but they don’t seem to care to meet these new friends or the parents of these new friends.
Are there parents in real life who are this thoughtless? Absolutely. But it’s a convenient contrivance that all four of these children happen to have parents who don’t seem at all curious about what their kids or doing when the parents aren’t there, or concerned about the kids’ safety when trusted adults are not with children. Haven’t these parents heard that this type of neglect is how child abductions from strangers are most likely to happen?
But most of the horror in “The Innocents” wouldn’t be as impactful if the parents in this story acted like responsible and fully attentive parents. The movie seems to want to make the point that with these psychic powers, these children are more dangerous than adults who don’t these powers. A lot of horror movie viewers can take bloody scenes of adults killing each other, but there’s something particularly unsettling about a child committing first-degree murder.
The child actors in these roles are perfectly adequate, but all of the child characters except Ida have personalities that come close to being very hollow and two-dimensional. Ida is the only one who seems to have a complex personality, so Fløttum gives the best performance. Ben is a predictable sociopath and only seems to get emotionally hurt for selfish reasons. Aisha is the character that needed the most development.
The ending of “The Innocents” is not too surprising. But getting to that ending is a very uncomfortable ride for viewers. And since horror movies are supposed to make people feel uncomfortable, “The Innocents” certainly achieves that goal in an original story.
IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Innocents” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 13, 2022. The movie was released in Norway in 2021.