Writer/director Eskil Vogt watched his profile rise recently with the success of “The Worst Person in the World,” which earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination along with co-writer Joachim Trier. Vogt and Trier collaborate constantly, but Vogt also occasionally directs his own work free from his BFF, including the excellent “Blind” in 2014. His latest, the deeply unsettling “The Innocents,” recalls his script for his 2017 Trier collab “Thelma,” the story of a young woman who realizes she has unexpected powers. In the way that film used a sci-fi premise to unpack issues of development and repression,“The Innocents” uses the structure of what’s almost a superhero origin story to examine those days of youth when we’re figuring out our own moral code, when words like “innocent,” “guilty,” and even “good” and “evil” start to have real-world meaning for us. A deep empathy from Vogt for his child actors elevates this from what it could have been, even if it feels like there’s a tighter version that unfolds with a tad more urgency.
Almost all of “The Innocents” unfolds at a large Norwegian housing complex, the kind of place where all of the buildings and apartments look generally the same, adding a mundane backdrop to a very unusual coming-of-age story. The phenomenal Rakel Lenora Flottum plays nine-year-old Ida, someone who is at that aforementioned age when boundaries are being drawn. Ida is also old enough to find herself annoyed by her autistic, nonverbal sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). When Anna is bugging her, Ida will pinch her leg, knowing that her sister won’t even respond. She’s provoking. She’s trying to get a response. Kids do that at this age—pushing boundaries to see what happens next.
And then Ida meets a boy who already has long destroyed traditional boundaries and continues to go there. In an incredibly disturbing scene that animal lovers should be wary of, a boy named Ben (Sam Ashraf) brutally murders a cat. Ben has been bullied by locals and ignored by his single mother, leading to the kind of dissolution of moral values that sometimes creates a serial killer. But Ben isn’t your average growing sociopath because he can do things the average troublemaker cannot. It turns out that Ida and Anna have some strange powers too, as does Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), and all four of them seem more powerful when they’re around each other. It might sound like “The New Mutants” or “Chronicle,” but Vogt’s concept isn’t that mythologically deep. It’s more about asking “what if” questions about youth. What if a kid could get vengeance on a bully without even touching him? How far would they go? How would that shape his developing moral code? How does power impact innocence?
Ida is the first to realize that Ben is not only special but dangerous, and there’s an interesting gender dynamic in “The Innocents” that could be examined in a longer thinkpiece. It could even be read as a study of when young girls realize that the boys around them are dangerous, and how allyship is needed to overcome power imbalances. Vogt is the kind of writer who never spells out his themes with clear, underlined dialogue or plot twists. He trusts his audience, giving them ideas to roll around in their brains instead of spoon-feeding them simple moral messages.
He also has really developed as a visual artist. Shot by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, “The Innocents” has a mesmerizing visual language as the camera swoops and moves through the apartment complex. The imposing buildings that look even bigger when you’re young; the windows that all feel almost menacingly the same; the sound of children on the complex playground; the cramped quarters of these domiciles that hide dismissive or even abusive parents and create unusual children—“The Innocents” is a complex piece of storytelling, both visually and narratively.
It’s also a bit of a drag at times. While there’s so much to like here, “The Innocents” takes a very long time to get going and I sometimes wished that Vogt would turn up the heat through pacing. I feel like there’s a taut, gut punch of a movie in here that trims about 15 minutes from multiple places. However, it’s the only real complaint one could levy against a very ambitious movie that doesn’t just use children as tools in a sci-fi concept but tries to understand its prepubescent protagonists. Sometimes it doesn’t take a village—it takes a kid figuring out they won’t ever really be innocent again.