The Innocents - New Release Review
Director: Eskil Vogt
Starring: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Ellen Dorrit Petersen
Written by: Eskil Vogt
Produced by: Maria Ekerhovd, Misha Jaari, Mark Lwoff
Cinematography by: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
Original Score by: Pessi Levanto
During the bright Nordic summer, a group of children reveal their dark and mysterious powers when the adults aren't looking.
Scandinavian films, particularly within the horror genre, have this peculiar way of pulling you in and making you feel like you’re actually living in the world that has been built on-screen. Eskil Vogt’s amazing ‘The Innocents’ is no different in that respect. It is a profoundly moving piece of filmmaking that rocked me to my core.
Two young sisters, Ida and Anna, move into a new apartment block with their parents. Anna is slightly older than Ida and is on the spectrum. Almost entirely non-verbal, Anna essentially requires 24/7 care and it has notably taken its toll on her parents and Ida too, who initially shows some signs of cruel resentment towards her older sister. When tasked with taking Anna outside for the day Ida “introduces” her to two other kids who live on the premises, Ben and Aisha. The group become friends instantly, playing together in the playground and surrounding area. They are kids who each have their own insecurities to deal with and slowly but surely discover that they each (with the exception of Ida) have special powers. What makes this even more intriguing is that their powers become comprehensively stronger when the group is together. You could say they “shine” brighter when they’re cheering each other on.
‘The Innocents’ isn’t strictly a coming-of-age drama, not in the traditional sense anyway. It’s clearly about the children discovering themselves but also and more importantly it’s about them unearthing the true meaning of what it is to be a good human being. Empathy and understanding and loyalty and love and even morality.
Most films that have such a thought provoking impact tend to be quite slow moving and ‘The Innocents’ certainly falls into that category. However at no point did it feel boring or the storytelling feel tiresome, quite the opposite, the gradual passive flow of the film actually invites us into the lives of these children in a more poignant way. Sometimes less really is better and the silence, which is commonplace throughout the film, does so much in helping the characters tell their rather simple story. Vogt’s direction and Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camerawork is so intimate at times that it often feels claustrophobic. There’s quite a lot of close ups and tight angled shots that help us to feel closer to the young characters. It’s genuinely impressive how much of a connection the kids have with each other and even more shocking with how much I personally felt connected to them. That’s all down to the performances of the young actors, which may be the greatest acting from a group of kids I have ever witnessed. Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Ida and Sam Ashraf as Benjamin are especially mind boggling in how they somehow act well beyond their years. Rakel has an infectious laugh and glowing smile that lights up the entire screen. She can slip effortlessly (and often) into a dramatic display too when called upon. Sam is the bully of the bunch whose tough homelife filters out through his interactions with Anna and Aisha and eventually leads to the unthinkable. He can move objects by focussing his mind but he also harbours the ability to control others too, using people as his own avatar. He plays the role initially quite docile but soon lets his indignant emotional state takeover as he begins to lose control. He hates his life and therefore projects hatred onto other things. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) has telepathic abilities and can make connections with others from far away. This becomes a crucial part of the story when she connects with Anna and helps her to speak, something that according to her Mother she hasn’t been able to do since she was a toddler. And Alva Brynsmo Ramstad might have the toughest job of all in respectfully portraying the austitic older sister. It never felt like her performance was too much and her moments of clarity are genuinely emotional to watch. There’s a scene when her parents are attempting to communicate to her later on in the film that is extremely touching.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is watching the children discover and harness their powers together. The film really does a remarkable job at portraying the true nature of children at this age. It's hard not to get nostalgic for a simpler time during the early part of the film when the kids are bonding. Yes they are innocent souls but they can easily gravitate towards a dark place, which we see later on in Benjamin, but we also see it at the beginning with Ida. Children at this age are naive and vulnerable and they also have no real ethical understanding of right and wrong. We see this during the sequence involving a cat (animal lovers beware) when Ida goes along with Benjamin's plan (I won’t spoil it for you) but she then realises what she did was wrong after Ben goes too far. While this particular sequence wasn't enjoyable to watch at all for obvious reasons it was the shift the film needed at this point to really push the story forward. The group dynamic begins to change too and we begin to see the characters learn and evolve.
Similar to the Swedish vampire-noir ‘Let the Right One In’ Vogt’s film tells an adult fable through the lens of a child’s eye, and all within the backdrop of an apartment building. Although ‘The Innocents’ is set during the Summer and isn’t quite as dark (literally) as Tomas Alfredsen’s 2008 flick it does share many similarities. It’s lighter on the traditional horror elements but it excels in creating an anxiety induced atmosphere that often had me preparing to look away…just in case. And it has a number of shocking scenes that might stay with you long after the credits have faded. There’s a few moments in the third act that reminded me of David Robert Mitchell’s phenomenal ‘It Follows’.
The origin of the children's powers are never revealed or even discussed at any length and honestly that’s for the best. By remaining purposely vague the film doesn’t need to allocate time for unnecessary explanations that will neither advance the story or develop the characters any further. In reality the superpowers are really only plot devices and the film is really about the relationships between the children. Their special abilities in some ways could be seen as a metaphor for puberty and the intense changes that occur both physically, mentally and emotionally during adolescence, which remains one of the most transformative periods of our lives.
‘The Innocents’ is a must see cinematic marvel that transcends the genre and despite some scenes being difficult to watch at times the writing is deeply compelling from start to finish and the performances are fiercely hypnotic.
- Gavin Logan
'The Innocents' - In Cinemas and Digital May 20th