Review of Eskil Vogt’s ‘The Innocents’
Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt wrote the screenplay for last year’s terrific The Worst Person in the World, and that’s just one of his collaborations with fellow countryman Joachim Trier. The two seem to enjoy, or at least have a knack, for creating films that take viewers out of their comfort zone. The Innocents is Vogt’s second feature as director, and you will likely find yourself questioning your ideals of the complexities of childhood and debating what makes a kid “good” or “bad.”
A family moves to a new apartment so that their eldest daughter Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) can receive the best possible treatment for her non-verbal autism (seemingly trapped inside her own body). Anna’s younger sister Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) spends an inordinate amount of time on her own as their mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen is also Rakel’s real-life mother) focuses on Anna. Immediately we are struck by how cruel Ida is to Anna, obviously envious of the time her parents devote to the child in need. The film moves meticulously as Ida befriends Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy from the same apartment building. Ben has an ability to move things with his mind. His telekinesis is in the early stages, and Ida pushes him to develop his powers.
One particularly disturbing sequence involves the two kids and a local cat at the top of the building’s stairwell. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another young girl from the building starts hanging out with Ida and Ben. This also draws in Anna, as the sweet Aisha has a connection with her and a way of communicating telepathically. It’s at this point where our brains shift into overdrive as we realize there is something supernatural going on.
As Ben’s ability grows, so does his sadistic nature. He reacts (often violently) to situations where he feels disrespected. At the same time, Anna and Aisha grow closer, and Ida and her parents are thrilled with Anna’s improved demeanor. As viewers, we come to realize that director Vogt has made the apartment building a character itself. Is the building behind the special abilities shown by these kids? Or is it the ominous nearby forest? Why are the powers strongest when the kids are together? For a film that mostly progresses very slowly, there is much for us to take in – although we do wish more time had been spent on the makeup of all four kids. We are only teased with what other kids in the building are experiencing, but the supernatural aura is clearly in play.
None of the four child actors have any previous feature film experience, yet each is superb in their own way. They perfectly capture the curiosity and confusion that goes with childhood, and there is an insightful “kid” moment when Ida shows her one ‘talent’ to Ben. We are left to wonder if the film’s identical title to the 1961 classic is coincidental or purposeful. It’s not a remake, but it works as an homage. The staircase shot is even similar in the two films. Filmmaker Voigt excels at ensuring we believe something evil is just around the corner, yet he never rushes to the next moment. An eerie, ominous atmosphere is perfectly complemented by these four kids. Vogt’s dark film sticks the ending, and stays with us for a while.