by Nuha Hassan
Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents follows a group of four children who discover that they possess hidden supernatural abilities, and it quickly takes a dark turn. This Norwegian horror film dives into the dark, emotional dynamics and uncomfortable layers of cruelty and self-sacrifice. The standout performances go to the young actors in the movie, who portray the moralities of childhood and the curiosity to explore their mysterious new powers. It’s a slow burn horror movie that is meant to make the audiences uneasy, and Vogt’s film is a different kind of coming-of-age movie — one that’s horrifying and unsettling — with some noticeable flaws.
Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), her autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), and their parents (Ellen Dorrit Pedersen and Morten Svartveit) move into a massive Norwegian tower block, right next to an ominous forest and garden below. While they unpack their belongings, their mother sends Ida downstairs with Anna, who has a phone tucked in her pocket, to find neighbour children to play with. Ida meets Ben (Sam Ashraf), who lives in the apartment complex and shows off his supernatural abilities by making bottle caps and rocks fall sideways with his mind. Ida and Ben spend a lot of time together experimenting with their newfound abilities on animals by throwing them down the stairs and breaking branches with their minds.
Later, Ida, Ben and Anna meet Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who claims that she can hear Anna’s thoughts and eventually, possesses the power to speak, after developing regressive autism at a young age. But as the four children test their powers and the limits of them, Ben discovers that he can manipulate people into doing things against their will and quickly turns violent. Soon, the children find themselves in a difficult and dangerous situation that puts themselves and their families at risk.
The gradual escalation of Ben’s powers is perhaps rooted in the environment he grew up in. Out of all the children’s parents, Ben’s single mother (Lise Tonne) neglects and physically abuses him. This cruelty manifests when he hurts the neighbourhood cat and begins to control others to push them off a bridge and break someone’s leg with his mind. The group’s dynamic changes when Ben’s anger grows so much to the point where he hurts his mother by pouring hot water on her and his mother pleads to call the police, but it doesn’t phase him at all. For the audience, these motivations will be cold and gruesome and Vogt suggests, ironically, that children are not innocent. Ben’s violent streak begins when he figures out that he can use his power to get back at people who wronged him such as his mother and his bullies. So, Ida, Anna and Aisha band together to stop him from killing more people.
What’s interesting about the movie is that Vogt doesn’t explore what the children could have done if they had used these powers for good. Instead, their curiosity leaves them to explore the endless boundaries of the supernatural power, thus leading them to a place where their powers seem out of control. Ida, Anna, Aisha and Ben’s curiosity about exploring the capacity of their powers was not enjoyable. Perhaps it’s because the narrative shifts it focuses on Ben’s villainous streak and not an alternative story where the kids find the morality of their powers. Whether Vogt is suggesting that children aren’t as innocent as they seem to be, or that children don’t know the limits of right and wrong. The four children have committed acts that the viewer would imagine something an adult would do. Empathy and morality are on two different levels. It is non-existent to them at a young age because they are meant to be taught what is right or wrong.
The Innocents adopts a slasher-esque horror film vibe and while the movie conveys the difference in childhood experience, casting is definitely an issue. Ida, who abuses her autistic sister by pinching and putting shards of broken glass inside her, is given a redemption arc. Ben’s childhood, however, is abusive and his anger manifests to the point where he hurts his mother, therefore, making him an antagonist of the movie. Vogt’s choice to cast Ida as a white child actor and Ben as a young child actor of colour slightly suggests racist tropes being reimagined in The Innocents. Also, Aisha lives with her single mother, who is clearly distressed about finances and other personal issues, and is a victim of Ben’s powers. He harms Aisha in the most gruesome way possible. Both Ben and Aisha live in a single-parent household compared to the happy family of Ida and Anna at the centre of the movie. Perhaps this commentary might be lost on some of the viewers but it would be good to think about what this means and the purpose that it has on the movie.
Vogt’s casting choice resulted in two interesting scenes that showed how the happy white family reacted to two children dying at their residential building. The contrast between the reaction towards Aisha and another young white kid’s death are completely different. After Ben kills his bully, Ida overhears her family talk about how the parents must be devastated about the accident, in contrast to when Aisha’s mother commits a horrible crime, under hypnosis, and Ida’s father reminds his daughter that the mother was “sick in the head.” Also, Ben’s mother is implied to be abusive and neglectful towards him. Vogt portrays the non-white families as irresponsible and their stories as tragic, compared to the white family where they don’t have an outcome such as what happened to Aisha and Ben’s mother.
While The Innocents presents a slow burn horror film including psychological effects that will make the viewer squirm and feel uneasy, but there are flaws within the movie’s storyline. Vogt’s attempt to convey a balanced childhood experience, maybe universal, only shows the dangerous side of it. It’s a turbulent tug of war between the children on who must be the one to stop Ben from killing more people. In the end, Anna and Ida step in to save the day. Vogt’s movie has an issue with the racial context, and maybe the director wasn’t aware of how the casting choices and storylines for the non-white actors would be perceived by audiences. However, this doesn’t excuse it. It’s quite unnerving to watch the contrast between the families, which even without the intention, seems a problematic choice of casting.