CAST: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Morten Svartveit, Kadra Yusuf, Lisa Tønne, Irina Eidsvold Tøien
RUNNING TIME: 117 mins
BASICALLY…: A group of children reveal dark and dangerous powers when their parents aren’t around…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Sure, Firestarter was an utter dud, but good news for anyone still hungry for an effective kid-with-psychic-powers horror: The Innocents, from writer and director Eskil Vogt, fills the void pretty nicely.
Vogt, just off his first Oscar nomination for co-writing the script to The Worst Person in the World with Joachim Trier (whom he also worked with on the director’s Thelma, another decent Nordic sci-fi thriller dealing with telekinesis), reimagines the classic “evil child” horror trope with eerie cohesion, its feet planted firmly in the ground and foregoing standard descents into effects territory in favour of quieter, much more alarming set-pieces. It’s basically what The New Mutants was clearly going for, but didn’t quite end up being.
The film begins as a family of four moves into a block of flats somewhere in Oslo, Norway; while Mum and Dad (Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Morten Svartveit respectively) are busy with their own stuff, nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) clearly resents the sudden move, as well as having to occasionally take care of Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), her older, non-verbal autistic sister. While out exploring the mostly empty area – most of the families, we’re told, are away for the summer – Ida meets local kids Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who show her and Anna some of their extraordinary powers: they include being able to move objects with their minds, and communicate telepathically which soon helps Anna to begin speaking normally. However, as the children’s powers begin to grow, a deadlier psychosis begins to settle in, putting the children and some of their loved ones in serious danger.
While this is not Vogt’s first stint behind the camera (he also made the 2014 thriller Blind), The Innocents still has the makings of an impressive calling-card for a relatively new filmmaker. Vogt treats his high-concept film not like an X-Men wannabe – the pitfall which Firestarter all too willingly crumbled into – but as a real, honest coming-of-age story about a group of kids who form friendships over a long, boring summer… and also happen to possess some deadly psychic powers. The approach works, for the more overt genre moments come as a genuine shock amidst the much more down-to-earth scenes of kids just being kids, whether it’s giggling at the word “fart” or picking on each other without being entirely aware of how cruelly they’re behaving (one of the first scenes is of young Ida pinching the arm of her older autistic sister, which isn’t necessarily an act of sadism but more of just a kid not knowing the difference between right and wrong). When the darker stuff does begin to happen, it’s genuinely chilling because enough time has been spent with these kids, seeing how they interact with one another and what their home lives are like – some unfortunately better than others – that we empathise with them and even admire how naïve and innocent they at first appear to be.
Vogt does not shy away from the more sinister side of this story either, including the alarming behavioural patterns of these kids that become more and more disturbing by the day (cat-lovers should stay far away from this movie). A mixture of eerie cinematography, minimalist effects and four outstanding child performances contribute to a creepy atmosphere that allow their powers to thrive in all the worst possible ways, especially as one of them slowly but surely turns completely psychotic. It is unnerving to watch as newer powers are revealed, ones that prove to be far deadlier and more unsettling than the more innocent games they had been playing, and seeing them in action results in some truly shocking consequences that will have you both disturbed and also genuinely heart-broken. Vogt does well to build upon this atmosphere all the way up to the conclusion, which slyly trades in the expected big CGI explosions for something far more subtle (although it takes a bit more time than perhaps it should to reach that obvious endpoint).
A chilling low-key horror that wisely uses its sci-fi aspects sparingly, The Innocents is an effective genre piece that bucks easy comparisons to stuff like Village of the Damned or The Turn of the Screw, which through its careful focus on the naturalist blossoming of these young kids’ newfound powers allows for surprisingly sympathy before things inevitably go sideways. By the end, you’ll be simultaneously feeling scared of and for these children in equal measure, since the writing, direction and performances all do such a strong job at conveying the greater tragedy of the loss of innocence and the birth of something much more alarming.
Between this and Firestarter, no prize for guessing which is the far better “powerful child” movie.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Innocents is an effective genre piece from writer-director Eskil Vogt, who uses the sci-fi aspects of his horror tale sparingly in favour of a soulful narrative that allows for strong connections with these young powerful children, which makes the inevitable turn towards more sinister and genuinely disturbing territory feel all the more shocking.