Movie Review: ‘The Innocents’ Explores the Undefinable Private Life of Children
Director: Eskil Vogt
Writer: Eskil Vogt
Stars: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Sam Ashraf.
Synopsis: Four children become friends during the summer holidays. Out of sight from the adults, they discover they have hidden powers. While exploring their newfound abilities, their innocent play takes a dark turn and strange things begin to happen.
What is the inner life of children like? What happens when they are on their own, free to explore their instincts and socialize amongst themselves with no supervision? These questions are at the core of The Innocents, the latest film by writer/director Eskil Vogt, who, after spending years focused on his career as a screenwriter, returns to the director chair since 2014’s Blind.
Vogt, best known for his successful partnership with Joachim Trier – they have cowritten all of Trier’s films, including this year’s Oscar winner The Worst Person in the World –, seems to be interested in continuing to explore themes and feelings previously visited in Trier’s Thelma, but in a more sinister way. In The Innocents, Trier abandons the coming-of-age angle and the hopeful view in order to create an anxiety-driven mystery. The innocence is present, but under a dark approximation.
Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her family just relocated to Oslo. Her big sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) is autistic and doesn’t know how to communicate, existing in a faraway world where no one can approach her. As Ida experiences exasperating feelings, she becomes friends with Ben (Sam Ashraf), a boy who quickly shows off that he has powers to move objects. Soon enough, Ida, Anna, and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), Anna’s new friend who seems to understand her, also realize that they have mental abilities that intensify when they’re together. Their essence defines what they do with these powers, with Vogt exploring the source of malice and virtue, and questioning the way our surroundings shape our personality and decisions.
Are we naturally bad? Are we evil because of something inside us or do we become evil because of the influence or absence of others? The director invites debate by offering different paths and decisions in each of his four main characters.
Going back to Thelma, The Innocents could easily be its worthy pair and counterpart. While the former invites hope and support for the protagonist –even as we discover her tumultuous past– The Innocents invites conflict and discomfort. We witness the kids existing without the norms and rules of the public square, discovering their personalities and the differentiation between right and wrong. The fact that it is centered on them makes the film more unbearable and stressful. While other directors avoid exploration and exploitation of crude images, Vogt insists on shocking the viewer with the children’s casual cruelty that is born from innocence and ignorance of morality and ethics.
Vogt relies on the creation of tension – as soon as the film starts, it is evident that something terrible is going to happen – and the absence of excessive action. Nevertheless, when it appears, it is drastic and horrifying because of how recognizable it is. Anticipation, shock, and an unsettling turn of events are met with chilly silences, the sound of the wind or soft music. The evident decision for the smooth and discreet makes the film more unsettling; flirting dangerously with horror.
Just as the film explores the secret life of children and the development of their inner selves, it also tackles the role of the parents and the constant pressure they put on their offspring. The kids are constantly ignored, silenced, and questioned by the tired and exasperated adults around them. Consequently, the children are forced to resolve serious issues under the pressures and limitations of their dependable nature. In the film, the adults are the challenges, providing new problems to the private life of the protagonists.
In this respect, Vogt aptly deals with the test of not working with one, but four children. Every child actor offers a distinct presence on screen and a well-defined personality, each with a distinguishable background and an essence that is reinforced throughout the film. However, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad is the highlight as the autistic girl with superpowers that raise questions about her mind’s condition and her relationship with the world.
While enrapturing, the film is also challenging because of its bleak aura and discomforting mood, the multiple raw situations involving children, and the unexpected resolutions. Nevertheless, these are the characteristics that make the film special: Vogt enjoys and takes advantage of the Nordic creative liberty to explore these themes.
The Innocents is the daring exploration of the private life of children. It presents their haunting reality of internal struggles, profound relationships, complex moral dilemmas, and the pains of forming a personality before their formal introduction to the complexities of society. While their innocence is usually a relief and a source of optimism, in this film it is excruciatingly terrifying.