I’m not entirely sure, but it’s possible that it was watching Children of the Corn that made me realize I definitely never wanted kids. There was something especially traumatizing about young people doing harm, and it was far scarier to me than any supernatural creature out for blood. With diabolical kids, you’ve got all the sadism that humanity is capable of, with none of the shame and restraint that adulthood ideally instills. It’s chilling.
While there have been numerous films about sociopathic kids, including some legendary ones that have played Cannes like Haeneke’s extraordinary White Ribbon that ties childhood bullying to the forces that gave rise to Nazism and the Holocaust, there hasn’t ever been anything quite as quiet and confident as Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents. The director is best known to international audiences as a screenwriter, penning the equally excellent and award-winning Cannes entry The Worst Person in the World, as well as his 2014 paranoiac drama Blind that landed at Berlin.
With The Innocents, Vogt channels his fatherhood into a tale of young kids being particularly terrible to one another. There are echoes here of Stephen King’s fascination with messed up kids who have newly found powers without the ability to yet control them – think The Shining, or even Firestarter – but the film that immediately came to mind was Sebastián Cordero’s exceptional film Chronicle. The differences, of course, are obvious – with that film, the kids are properly adolescent, and like with Ginger Snaps from 2000, there are often overt connections between the chaos of puberty and the desire to destroy all of civilization.
Vogt’s story, on the other hand, is much more challenging to pull off because the evil is far more precocious. It requires him to elicit performances from very young actors (our lead character, Ida, played by Rakel Lenora Flottum, is 9 years old), all while skating the edge between believability and more broad narrative concerns. It’s a tribute to Vogt’s patience, his gifted young actors, and his skills as a director that he’s drawn some of the most believable performances of the festival out of children that, presumably, do not hold murderous intent during their day-school activities.
The story involves Ida, her autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), and their connection to Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), creating a quartet of individuals who see playground hijinks elevate to far more diabolical circumstances. Ashraf in particular is exceptional, once again navigating what easily could have been a two dimensional role into something that’s wonderfully nuanced. It’s this near-documentary austere, Scandinavian tone matched with heightened circumstances that results in an extremely effective and unsettling story.
It would be easy to fall into simplistic understanding of the dynamic at play, especially as Vogt has cast actors of different backgrounds for the roles beyond the blonde/blue eyed stereotypical Norwegian. Racial and even gender aspects do of inform, but the reaction is fare from simplistic, with the immediate acceptance of each other illustrating the general capacity of kids to see through overt differences that divide adults, all while demonstrating that there are far more sinister ways of finding things to drive people apart.
The film is dark and unnerving, but lacks some of the kinetic flare that may drive genre audiences to seek it out for visceral thrills. Similarly, it may be too unsettling from those used to a far more placid tale. It’s this challenging tonality that actually makes this a film worth seeking out if you’re open to its provocative tale, as its in the navigation of all these elements that proves Vogt a master of precise filmmaking and narrative intent. If you’re open to be weirded out, but not needing some jump scare every so often to keep you engaged if distanced from the horrors you see, there’s plenty to admire.
The Innocents is a creepy, creatively rich film that wears its influences on its sleeves while still carving out a bold and original vision. Thanks to exceptional child performances and the wild circumstances they help bring to life, it’s a family film with a bite; a tale where casual cruelty is compounded by the growing realization that during that tenuous time between childhood and adolescence, the capacity to be caring or catastrophic is an open book. This is one of those international gems well worth seeking out, and while it may not conform to the genre expectations from other works that it overtly draws from, the end result is nothing short of extraordinary.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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Author: Jason Gorber
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July 20, 2021