Stretches of The Innocents (2021) are incredibly difficult to watch, but it’s an affecting, intense film, and a masterclass in slow-building, suspenseful dread. Written and directed by Eskil Vogt, who also co-wrote Thelma and scripted The Worst Person in the World, the film is unnervingly powerful and should enhance Vogt’s reputation as a filmmaker of contemporary dark fantasy.
When a family relocates to a new city, young Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is forced to adjust to a lonely new existence in an imposing apartment complex. Her older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) is autistic and incommunicative, which only enhances Ida’s loneliness. Things change when she meets local residents Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), both only-children of immigrants and similarly isolated. Unexpectedly, the kind Aisha befriends Anna, while Ida connects with the more adventurous Ben. Their simple childhood friendship is complicated when Ben reveals telekinetic powers, while Aisha’s empathy grows into a telepathic connection with Anna—an unexpected symbiosis that seems to unlock Anna’s inner abilities. But Ben has a cruel, sociopathic streak, which leads to alarming cruelty and ultimately a fateful, deadly confrontation.
Turning its forbidding apartment complex into a metaphorical microcosm for greater human conflicts, The Innocents is a remarkable film, all the moreso for the exceptional performances of its very young stars. So young, perhaps, they probably shouldn’t watch the film, which grows quite disturbing as the darkness intensifies. It eases into these murky waters, appearing at first like a quiet, fish-out-of-water story about outcasts coming together in a sunny but unwelcome tenement. But Vogt deviously injects the scenario with disquieting hints, and then broader, more threatening escalations, as the children evolve into stand-ins for the broader problems of human society. Ben and Aisha become opposing poles on a spectrum, one side entirely focused on destructive self-interest, the other on heartfelt concern for others. The sisters are caught in between, becoming key players in a secret, super-powered struggle that plays out under the noses of the distracted adults who surround them. It’s a bleak and at times grotesque film, not for the faint of heart. But with subtle special effects, absorbing visual storytelling, and confident messaging, it resolves rather brilliantly, an unlikely but profound battle of versus evil.