At what point do children use supernatural powers for good and for wrong-doing? Norwegian writer and director Eskil Vogt poses this question in his horror film The Innocents, making its mark during the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year. Moving to a new part of the country, Ida (played by Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) are left isolated aside from a couple of other stray kids in town during the summer. They meet Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), an empathic young girl who senses emotional pain in others and lends sensitivity and understanding in return. Ben (Sam Ashraf), clearly the more sinister of the group, uses his powers for harm and violence. What develops from normal childhood play and interaction is both an open door for nurturing friendships as well as an uncontrollable urge to defeat and destroy.
Portrayed as a mute and numb child on the autism spectrum, Anna spends most of her time obsessed with tactile and aural repetition of objects and indefinitely sitting on tire swings. Her younger sister Ida generally judges her to be a nuisance, persuaded by Ben’s inclinations towards daredevil behavior rather than keeping her sister company. However once Ben crosses the line, Ida gravitates more towards Aisha’s gentle and endearing demeanor and knack for telepathically relaying words and phrases to Anna to help her speak again. “Can I just listen?”, asks Aisha to her mother one night before bedtime in lieu of praying. The casting of the children, especially Aisha, is quite impeccable as her mild-mannered ways underscore that she’s wise beyond her years. Anna also comes across as intuitively wise in her quiet introspection and ability to portray a young girl with mental challenges on the surface yet the audience recognizes that there’s a much deeper well of determination beyond her exterior.
What develops as an eerie and intriguing premise eventually dissolves due to the repetitive nature of the children’s revenge schemes. While adults are almost entirely taken out of the film (aside from being a physical embodiment from which evil deeds are carried out), the plot loses steam as well as believability (as much as one can believe in supernatural abilities). Vogt’s attempts to show remorse in Ben after a tortuous scene he concocts from his mind into reality falls limp as the boy’s one dimensional personality continues to wreak havoc on those that get on his nerves. Ida is simultaneously torn between the vulnerability of her sister and Aisha while also attracted to Ben’s risk-taking ways. The Innocents is a compelling look as to what degree children will fall victim to the devil on their shoulder whispering in their ear, yet the monotony of the children’s demonstrations of immoral actions void the film of much complexity.