Though it doesn't quite land a satisfying conclusion, this is a chilling and uncomfortable piece of work from director Eskil Vogt
Think of The Innocents as a psychotic Celine Sciamma film, with much of our time spent watching a group of children play in the endless Norwegian summer. Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is our ostensible protagonist, tasked with taking care of her non-verbally autistic elder sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). The sisters are new to the high-rise estate on which the film is set. First they meet Ben (Sam Ashraf), a shy young boy who seems to have a bit of a cruel streak. Later, they meet the sweet Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim).
But their adventures together quietly reveal something darker and more malicious, as many of the children seem to develop telepathic and telekinetic powers. Gradually, their playtime becomes more surreal, and Ben in particular seems to take increasingly greater pleasure in using his new gifts for evil.
Directed by Eskil Vogt, The Innocents strikes a strong and consistent note of unease and discomfort; it’s likely there will be more than one sequence here which will prove too much for some. M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable is a reference point. Both films are about ordinary people discovering new abilities, but unsure about what that means for them. They both also generate their dramatic heft from playing things with psychological naturalism rather than comic book pulp.
The film is at its best when it’s wallowing in the sinister undertones of near-perpetual daylight, and making great use of the architectural geography of the estate setting. This estate seems to swallow our characters whole and separate them, isolated in little box-apartments when not playing together. That a high-rise estate functions as an incubator of latent social ills is an idea that’s been parlayed before – most notably in JG Ballard’s High Rise and Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation – but this here marks an especially cracked vision of that theme.
It feels particularly pointed that only Ida fails to develop supernatural powers. Anna’s non-verbal state makes communication near-impossible (except, crucially, through the powers themselves). Ben is physically abused at home, Aisha has vitiligo, and both are from diaspora, single-parent families. Ida, on the other hand, is a postcard-perfect Aryan child: are her lack of powers a comment on the structural leg up she has on everybody else?
The Innocents certainly produces a sharp commentary on such issues, as well as probing into tense and uncertain ideas around empathy and emotional development in children, which it handles in a superbly antagonistic way. But the Rain Man-esque metaphors do risk tipping into outdated tropes, even when they’re in the service of a wider point. Most frustrating is the narrative direction in the latter half, where events clearly start happening because the plot demands it, rather than the characterisation. Visual motifs elegantly elaborated in the first hour become repetitive and obvious as time goes on, with the climax ultimately falling a little flat.
Still, despite this disappointing finish, The Innocents is a chilling and uncomfortable piece of work – the kind of nasty-edged stuff that cinema could do with a bit more of.
The Innocents is released in UK cinemas from 20 May.Where to watch