REVIEW: De uskyldige [The Innocents] [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 117 minutes
    Release Date: September 3rd, 2021 (Norway) / May 13th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Eskil Vogt
    Writer(s): Eskil Vogt

Can I just listen?

You’ve seen De uskyldige [The Innocents] before. Whether the telekinetic powers, battle between good and evil, or exploitation of neurodevelopmental disorders like Autism to supply a character a sense of power that contrasts preconceived prejudices, everything Eskil Vogt puts into his script is familiar in some way. What makes it so uniquely different in tone and expectation is therefore the choice to project those tropes onto children. His decision becomes an evolutionary progression forward from Max Landis and Josh Trank‘s Chronicle in that the sort of corruption that befalls heroes and villains in supernatural horror films passes from teens to prepubescent kids who couldn’t explain what was happening to their parents if they tried. As adults automatically dismiss such phenomena as imaginative fantasy, they’re forced to face it alone.

That’s a lot to put on a nine-year-old’s shoulders—especially when the resulting “magic” tricks turn from cool to scary on a dime. Because it is fun and games at first. Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) feels left behind due to her parents (Ellen Dorrit Petersen‘s Mom and Morten Svartveit‘s Dad) constantly attending to her special needs sister (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad‘s Anna). She can’t fully grasp what Autism is or how its effect on Anna doesn’t somehow make her less “human” in any way. Ida’s acts of abuse (pinching her or putting glass shards in her shoes) aren’t therefore malicious as much as they are a product of curiosity. Because she believes her sister doesn’t feel pain, inflicting it stops being “wrong.” That changes upon meeting Ben (Sam Ashraf).

The reason is simple: Ben is angry. No matter how much Ida may resent her family, she is loved. That’s not to also say Ben’s mother doesn’t love him, just that her actions are far more volatile, personal, and perhaps violent. Add bullying to the list and you could forgive the boy for losing himself to his temper. Watching him throw a punch isn’t, however, the same as watching him lift a rock with his mind to send it soaring through the air at another child’s head. Watching him “play” with a stray cat in a way that puts the animal in peril isn’t the same as purposefully smashing its skull under his shoe. Look no further than Ida’s reaction to both. A naïve smile turns to revulsion.

By maintaining Ben’s innocence, Vogt posits the question that he might not be fully lost. Maybe he’s just working some stuff out. Maybe hanging out with Ida, Anna, and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) can provide him the wholesome stimuli he needs to turn a corner—even if them playing together ultimately means testing the strength of their powers. Because while Ben can move objects with his mind, Aisha can read them. Despite Anna’s regressive condition taking her speech, her new friend knows exactly what she wants and how she feels at any given time. And Anna may prove the strongest of their trio. Initially acting like an antenna that enhances Ben and Aisha’s talents, she soon reveals an ability to do both too while Ida looks on.

Because putting Ben on a righteous path would inevitably render the point of The Innocents moot, it’s safe to assume he’ll be descending to the dark side. Doing so makes him more terrifying and losing himself to that power forces him to cross lines that no amount of tears or remorse can counteract. Aisha knows this because she can feel and hear everything that is going on. Can she and Anna stop him before he hurts someone bad enough to become irredeemable? Can Ida maneuver through her parents with the precision necessary to get Anna outside without causing them to question what it is they’re doing once she is? And what does stopping Ben even mean to a nine-year-old? Are these kids moving towards murder? It’s beyond unsettling.

Children this age aren’t supposed to be doing these things and yet no one can deny the fact that they didn’t question life and death or good and evil when they were that young too. Vogt talks about being inspired to write the film when his children were born. He was fascinated by the idea that they lived secret lives outside his grasp—their internal and external worlds separated by language, experiences, and motives. So, he works to delve into that headspace by keeping the adults at arm’s length, forever distracted by the superficial and dismissive of the truth lying below that surface. When Anna shows improvement, Mom and Dad want more. They make it about their wants, leaving Ida to worry about hers against increasingly dire odds.

And while the tone and genre does skew psychological for the most part in doing so, Vogt isn’t afraid to inject full-on nightmarish horror too. It’s one thing to let Ben evolve his powers into “fetching” people and forcing them to physically do what he wants, but it’s another to show what that means to the mind of the body being used as a puppet. There are some gnarly scenes of hallucinatory fear stemming from Ben needing them to act as he intends without being a literal puppeteer. If he wants them to move, for example, their minds must conjure something that guarantees that movement. Snakes, beasts, demons—only the scariest things possible can make you go against your own instincts and become the monster yourself.

Most intriguing is the reality that some learn that lesson on their own. Because while Ben can make others do his dirty work, Ida’s only ability is empathy. It may not seem like she has any at the beginning due to her actions being devoid of consequences, but she’s driven by it the moment her world opens to the sort of despair she’s thus far avoided. To know Anna feels is to see her as more than an inhuman oddity. To see Aisha’s love is to recognize true hate. Ramstad and Ashraf have the “flashier” performances (her condition continuously regressing and progressing opposite his heartbreaking plunge into rage), but Asheim and Fløttum’s heart transcends. They’ll risk everything even if they’re too young to know what “everything” truly means.

[1] Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Ida in Eskil Vogt’s THE INNOCENTS. Courtesy of IFC Midnight.
[2] Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Ida and Sam Ashraf as Ben in Eskil Vogt’s THE INNOCENTS. Courtesy of IFC Midnight.
[3] Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim as Aisha in Eskil Vogt’s THE INNOCENTS. Courtesy of IFC Midnight.

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