To make a film about kids with superpowers might seem like the arthouse stealing from the mainstream, cashing in on the one truly bankable premise our culture currently has to offer, but, thankfully, Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents manages to transcend any accusations of this sort of cynicism. The children here would hardly fit into a DC or Marvel offering; hell, even the odder and more violent Eleven from Stranger Things would give this bunch a wide berth. In his second feature, Vogt drills down into the utter horror that would likely stem from giving children, with their lack of empathy and self-centred senses of justice, supernatural abilities, and the result is often chilling.
Vogt is probably best known internationally as Joachim Trier’s co-writer, their script for The Worst Person in the World launching the pair to stratospheric acclaim, but The Innocents is 100% Vogt, even as it draws on some of the ideas deployed by him and Trier in 2017’s Thelma. Primary school-aged Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum) has just moved house at the start of the summer holidays with her parents and non-verbal autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who Ida deeply resents for the attention she commands, pinching Anna whenever their parents aren’t looking.
The apartment complex they’ve moved to has mostly emptied out for summer holidays and so the long, balmy days pass by with few people around and little to entertain Ida, until she meets Ben (Sam Ashraf), a kid with a troubled home life and telekinesis. As Ida and Ben play, either away from their parents or sometimes simply ignored by them, Ben’s powers expand as his emotional state fractures and his acts of psychic violence start to escalate, at first targeting some of the mean older kids in the neighbourhood, before slowly but inevitably turning on his newfound friend.
There are plenty of deeply unnerving scenes in The Innocents, from the cat-murder that seems obligatory for any super-children movie (we just had a similar scene in last week’s Firestarter remake) to telepathy-induced hallucinations that show worlds informed by the characters’ deeply-held fears. Vogt does remarkable work in drawing out subtle but often genuinely frightening performances from his young cast, and their games and fights feel very authentic, bound by the murky but vital rules that children build their individual worlds around.
It’s not all grim – another girl in the building, Aisha (Mina Asheim) has a telepathy that allows her to put words into Anna’s head, returning to her the ability of conversation that we learn she lost aged around 4 – but darkness is mostly where The Innocents makes its home. It’s frequently distressing, and Vogt’s sparing use of actual violence means you never grow numb to it, retaining his capacity to shock you through to the very end.
At almost two hours, The Innocents is a bit too long for its premise to sustain itself, and I’m not quite sure it fully sticks the landing, but the journey there is a compelling insight into the secretive and wrathful world of bored children escaping adult supervision. Engaging these kids on their own level, Vogt avoids any sort of moralising lesson, instead using their blinkered worldviews for dread and icy thrills.