After moving into a new house, a group of apartment towers surrounded by forests, quieter than usual thanks to summer vacation – bored young Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) welcomes friendship with a neighbor of the same age, Ben (Sam Ashraf). But Innocentsa brutal yet elegant investigation into the extremes of psychopathy and empathyis hardly your typical introductory movie.
Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt (recent Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay for co-writing The worst person in the world), Innocents greatly benefit from the talented children in its cast, which are presumably natural even as the circumstances surrounding them grow ever more fantastical. They appear like real kids, and that’s a big part of what makes the movie so disturbing. Early on, we’re a little uncertain about Ida; she tramples worms, spits on balconies, and shows flippant cruelty to her older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who is autistic and non-verbal. But she’s thrilled – with a sincere, beaming smile springing up – when she sees Ben demonstrate his unusual talent: he can move objects with his mind.
Honestly, that’s super cool, and Innocents Frames the introduction of Ben’s powers with such nonchalance that you almost wonder if you saw what you thought you saw. You did it! And Ben seems like a pretty nice guy who is at least more fun to hang out with than Anna…until Ida sees what Ben is capable of even without using his “magic trick” (he turns is a companion cat, and it’s awful), and you’re definitely starting to wonder where all this is going.
Innocents might position itself as a heavy indictment of parents in this scenario, but it doesn’t push itself into this corner. Everyone’s home life is less than ideal – Ida’s parents focus mostly on Anna, who needs round-the-clock attention; Ben’s mother regularly slams him; and the fourth child of the group, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who has her own secret talents, hears her mother sobbing at night for unknown reasons. But most of the time it seems like parents are busy with their own lives, certainly wrongly but not really negligent. The kids are out just to have fun and play, they all seem to be okay with it. What could go wrong? Of all the parents, Anna and Ida’s mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is the most involved; the sisters are the only children with two parents, their apartment is bigger and brighter than the others we see, and they have more of a family structure rather than a junk-food-seeking lifestyle at dinnertime . Even still, she’s also the kind of mom who says, “Tell me the truth, I’m not going to get mad,” and still gets mad.
Needless to say, children don’t reveal their gifts to anyone outside of their group, and that most certainly includes parents. At first they like to share their gifts – Aisha, it turns out, is a telepath who can psychically communicate with Ben, but even more remarkably has a connection to Anna that unlocks something behind the girl’s wide, blank eyes. But things quickly darken when the sensitive Ben, who is essentially a mini-Carriegives in to his malevolent instincts with sickening results.
The wonderful thing about Innocents, scary kids movie that manages to make the genre feel fresh while also making you feel bad about the world is how understated it is, even when the stakes are sky high. The intimate drama among the children feels like it could really happen, barely hidden from adults’ attention, though it’s not as if adults could intervene; it is abundantly clear that children have all the real power here. Tangled up in their secret, supernatural world where the rules of reality don’t apply, it’s up to them to work out their problems, even those that are literally life and death, with each other. It’s lonely and terrifying, and even beyond the film’s larger good vs. evil arc, its little moments of wickedness will stay with you long after the movie ends.
Innocents is coming to select theaters and wherever you rent movies today.
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