The Innocents

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Askel Vogt’s The Innocents takes a romantic notion about children – that they know something adults don’t – and gives it a damn good spanking. The result is one of the moodiest, creepiest and most unsettling films about childhood ever made.

There’s a touch of the brilliant 1961 film also called The Innocents, a bit of Let the Right One In and a smidgeon of The Exorcist in its intensely domestic setting. And it continues the trend towards supernatural stories told in a highly naturalistic way (see Petite Maman) which looks like it’s got a fair way to run.

Vogt keeps his camera at child height as he gradually unfolds his story of four kids on a Norwegian housing high-rise estate who are all loners in different ways. Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is the film’s focus, the neurotypical younger sister of Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), a girl cusping puberty who’s locked into her own world thanks to some unspecified learning disability. Anna spends her days grunting and scribbling on a pad. Ida, perhaps out of pique at not ever being the focus of attention, likes to torture her older sister – maybe by pinching her or putting broken glass in her trainers.

These two will meet and become playmates with Ben (Sam Ashraf), a kid who has a neat party trick involving the deflecting of falling objects. Telekinesis? Or just a stunt? Ben also likes to torture animals, which looks, again, like the sort of thing that kids sometimes do, but will turn out later to be significant. And there’s Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), the daughter of an always working African immigrant mother, and a sufferer from vitiligo whose patchy skin makes her something of an outcast.

Vogt gives us enough of this foursome as just average kids with enough going on in their lives to be fascinating in itself, so when the odd stuff starts happening it’s easy at first to just let it go. But that trick Ben does with a bottle top – deflecting it as it falls without touching it – becomes more concerning when done with a half brick. Aisha’s ability to empathise with Anna seems touching until Anna starts uttering words, as if Aisha were maybe inside her mind. Anna can suddenly also now keep pan lids spinning – something she likes to do – way longer than gravity should allow. Even Ida, least touched of all of them by the extranormal, exhibits moments that are beyond the scale of the everyday.

Aisha has uncanny gifts

Without getting so far into the plot that the film is ruined, let’s just say – weird shit happens. There is injury. Death. Cold-blooded, calculated unpleasantness made all the more shocking because a wide-eyed “innocent” child is behind it. This might be a tale of malevolent possession, budding superhero powers, or something else, Vogt never explains, which only makes things more compelling.

Films like this are meant to be creepy, but Vogt’s approach is take that word literally and use the notion of creeping around as the film’s stylistic driver. His camera slides into and out of situations stealthily, as if eavesdropping. It hovers on drones outside windows and eases round corners handheld. The film slides into character exposition and plot too, gradually divulging developments. There are no shock reveals. Occasionally the image goes out of focus, or sun flares into the lens to such a degree that we can’t quite see what’s going on. Vogts special effects are minimal – a stream of water bending at a child’s bidding – but spookily effective because almost mundane. On the soundtrack, when Pessi Levanto’s spare minimalist score isn’t setting the mood, there’ll be a distant rumble of thunder, a whoosh of howling wind.

There is no bad acting. The adults are excellent, and though it’s not about them it needs to be said because all of the focus, and critical attention, is going to be on children whose performances are beyond brilliant. Perhaps there’s been more use of the edit suite to assemble these performances by the youngsters than there was with the adults. There probably was. (This “composite acting” trick worked in Beasts of the Southern Wild to the point that it got nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis Oscar nominated, after all).

It matters not. The thing about The Innocents is that it is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s awesomely good. A classic. Almost every frame of it. Having written The Worst Person in the World, one of the most talked-about films of 2021, Vogt seems to have done it again.

The Innocents – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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