Director: Eskil Vogt
Cast: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Morten Svartveit
Words: Rhiannon Topham.
The Innocents, from Eskil Vogt (frequent writing collaborator of Joachim Trier, and director of 2014 drama Blind), begins with a small act of cruel curiosity. Our protagonist Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is roused from her slumber in the back of her family’s car by the sounds of her older sister, the severely autistic Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). After making sure that their parents aren’t looking, Ida leans over to her sister and pinches Anna’s leg to see if she will react. She does not, so Ida retreats, somewhat disappointed.
This idea of seemingly childish and outwardly harmless experimentation is tested again and again throughout the film. Ida’s family have moved to a new, featureless residential estate of high-rise apartment buildings and a central communal space. It is summer break when they arrive, so there aren’t many other kids around for Ida to meet and play with. On this first day, Ida goes for a wander, stopping to squish a worm under her foot in the mud by a lake. As she looks up, she sees a young boy staring at her from across the way. This is Ben (Sam Ashraf), who Ida will quickly strike up a friendship with, the two bonding over their shared loneliness and mutual interest in attacking insects and other small animals.
As the days drag on, Ida spends more time playing outside and is trusted to watch over Anna. She’s clearly bored and restless. There is one silver lining: the neighbouring woodland supplies all kinds of wonders for Ida and Ben to explore. One day, Ben demonstrates a special trick he’s been working on—he can make a bottle cap veer off in a different direction when Ida drops it from a height. This telekinetic ability escalates as Ben starts to realise the full extent of his ‘talents’—and it has extremely sinister consequences.
While Ida starts to clock on to Ben’s increasingly sadistic forms of supernatural entertainment, Anna meets a fellow young inhabitant of the housing development, a sweet girl called Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim). Unlike Ida, Aisha can communicate with Anna—because she’s telepathic. Through Aisha’s gentle encouragement and support, Anna gradually regains her ability to speak.
There’s a push and pull throughout the narrative, as we see the struggles of social exclusion through Ida’s nascent morality. She is initially drawn to Ben because he reflects the desperate craving for attention and sense of rudderlessness that she also quietly feels. But Ida recognises right from wrong, and she, Anna and Aisha realise they have to do something to stop Ben’s ballooning psychopathy from reaching catastrophic levels. Ida’s eventual role in this is hinted at from the start, nipping the bare skin of her sister’s leg in the back of the family car—she knew it was wrong, that’s why she did it only after confirming that her parents were looking the other way. There are moments when Ida’s own blithe naivety sways daringly close to fiendishness. But she is ultimately brought back to a place of empathy when she learns (through Aisha’s telepathic translations) that Anna can in fact feel pain and has untapped talents of her own.
The Innocents puts a new spin on our idea of kids “play fighting”. Their true selves are hidden from the adults around them (themselves complex and multi-layered characters), but it is when they are together that they learn their most valuable lessons. Friendship, boundaries, whether to use your powers for good or evil, one’s own capacity and tolerance for cruelty and malice.
Part of the intensity and brilliance of this is that the origin of the children’s abilities is never explained. To do so would detract from the force of Ben’s fury, and how these “innocent” characters can or should cope with their eventual loss of innocence as the story develops. It’s challenging and inventive cinema—with some of the best child acting you’ll see this year.