Eskil Vogt's slow-burn, matter-of-fact chiller follows several youngsters with telekinetic powers and explores the curiosity and casual cruelty of children – but don't expect Scanners Junior
Nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), the central character in Eskil Vogt's The Innocents, has a cherubic face, but those features can so easily slip into malevolence. In the back of the family's car, unnoticed by her parents, she pinches the thigh of the autistic Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), knowing that her non-verbal elder sister cannot express her pain. When she sees a worm crawling through the grass, she has no hesitation in stomping it into the mud, with a detached, mildly inquisitive gaze on her face.
The Innocents is about the curiosity and casual cruelty of children who are testing their boundaries and have little sense of consequences. All children act out and hurt each other, of course, but Vogt imbues his story with an extra layer of danger by granting some of them supernatural powers, which allows a genuinely troubled kid like Ida’s new friend Ben (Sam Ashraf) to do serious damage.
This is territory that Vogt has ventured into before, having co-written Thelma with his frequent collaborator Joachim Trier in 2017. That was a film about a teenage girl coming to terms with her own powers, but with The Innocents he has made something quieter, stranger and more unnerving. The inexplicable telekinetic feats that these children are capable of are presented in the most matter-of-fact way, with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen usually keeping the camera at the kids’ level, and his combination of tight close-ups and expansive, brightly lit wide shots has a disorienting effect. Vogt makes unpredictable and risky choices throughout the film, notably the way Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) can hear Anna’s thoughts and can somehow unlock the autistic girl’s speech, but everything that Vogt shows to us feels rooted in the everyday, and it’s easy to believe in what we’re seeing.
It’s easy to believe in these performances too. The casting of the four children at the heart of the story couldn’t be better, each possessing a genuine guilelessness but also being perfectly capable of handling the film’s darkest tones. As the sociopathic Ben, Sam Ashraf is particularly impressive, bringing a truly disturbing coldness to his performance but also drawing our empathy as a lonely, bullied child from a broken home. The inability of parents and children to communicate constructively is a central theme in the film. “What do you do if somebody is mean?” Ida asks her mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen, star of Vogt’s superb debut Blind). “Tell a grownup,” the mother responds, but the look on Ida’s face shows us how futile she knows that would be.
Vogt takes his time unfolding this story and his pacing could be described as too deliberate, but his chilly, mysterious picture exerts an irresistible grip. At times The Innocents feels like it’s going to turn into Scanners Junior – and it does contain a couple of jarring, gruesome moments – but Vogt’s take on the telekinetic battle is about as far from Cronenberg’s exploding heads as you can get. This director favours implosions, building to a climax so underplayed it goes unnoticed by the bystanders on screen, but one that is likely to haunt audiences nonetheless.
Released 20 May by Signature; certificate TBC