Director: Eskil Vogt (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, France, UK). Year of Release: 2021
Nine year old Ida is moving with her family to a new housing block. Ida is freckly and good-natured, her sister Anna is a little older and suffers from regressive autism which means that she is no longer able to speak. Their parents are thereabouts, but usually too busy for us to see much of them. Ida tests Anna’s apparent inability to feel pain by pinching her and putting glass in her shoes. She later learns that Anna does feel pain but is just unable to react emotionally.
While out playing, Ida meets Ben, a scary looking boy with a thousand yard stare. Ben shows off his ability to telekinetically divert the path of falling stones. On their travels they find a cat which they throw from the top of the tower block stairs. As this fails to kill it, Ben stamps on its head. You get the feeling that Ben may have a few issues that he’s not fully worked through.
They return to look for Anna, who Ida left sitting on the swings in the playground. Ida has made a new friend – Aisha, who has cut through Anna’s lack of verbal language by communicating with her telepathically. Later, they’ll test this skill by separating the two girls – although they can’t see each other Aisha can still say the word that someone has just whispered into Anna’s ear. Aisha also has telepathic reactions with the others, but it’s Anna with whom she seems to have the closest bond.
As Ben’s rage grows out of control, his powers seem to increase. First, he’s able to hurl objects at people who annoy him – starting by sending stones pinging at Aisha, then causing his mother to fall to the ground before he mind throws a large pot of boiling water over her. Later he develops the ability to compel other people to act at his bidding, resulting in two gruesome murders. Ida gets afraid and locks herself into the toilet.
The Innocents is certainly elegantly made and contains genuine moments of sheer horror. But it suffers a little from having no real internal logic. It is not just that we are never told why the kids have developed their special powers – it’s not entirely necessary for us to know this. But the strength and reach of these powers rise and fall according to the requirements of the plot. Sometimes Ben seems unstoppable, other times, the good guys have him under their control.
The kids see their ability to defy scientific laws as just something they can do – nothing more remarkable than Ida’s double jointedness. This works as long as we are only seeing the story through their eyes. But then Anna regains the power of speech. Her parents are astounded, but then do nothing with it. Where you’d expect them to be immediately calling the speech therapist, they just send her out to play.
There is also no real explanation for Ben’s psychopathic streak, apart from it being just part of his character. And while some boys do indeed seem to be pathologically evil, there is really no need to take any lead from The Lord of the Flies, a book which is both pessimistic and highly reactionary. Once you accept that some people are just evil, you’re only a couple of steps away from calling for a return to corporal punishment and a return to the short, sharp shock.
I think that the problems with The Innocents lie with it being not sure what it actually wants to say. Maybe there are some deep and complex metaphors at work that my little brain is unable to decipher, but for me things happened to often just because they did. The kids have special powers because, well they just have them. Some are good and others are evil because, I dunno human nature or something. This is a film that rarely asks the question Why?
However, if you just sit back and watch the film without asking any questions (which I’ve heard is an option), then it does have plenty worth watching. Even though you are fully aware of what you should expect from this sort of film, there are a number of genuinely scary jump shots, not least when Ida goes on the run and the film rapidly switches between what is really happening to her and the much more frightening scenario which is playing out in her head.
I’m also a bit unsure about the racial politics of the film. Ben and Aisha are both dark skinned, and at first I presumed they must be siblings, as I didn’t expect to see many non-blond(e) people in this Oslo suburb. Now this may say more about my prejudices than those of the film, but while I fully endorse colour blind casting, I think there is a danger of putting non-white characters on screen and not even mentioning the reality of racism. This may well be my problem, but it felt strange.
Summary: if you don’t overthink it, The Innocents is a superior film of its genre. It could have done with being a bit shorter, and the genre itself is not unproblematic, but it’s definitely worth a go. And I’m rarely prepared to offer higher praise than that.