Warning: Mild spoilers and mention of animal cruelty ahead
The Innocents, as the title suggests, is about children. Thinking of children as innocent, as pure and altruistic, is an easy way to view them. There’s a history of horror films that warns against viewing children as simply naïve and good-hearted; from thrillers like We Need to Talk About Kevin to horror films like The Omen and The Ring. These films force us to struggle against our innate need that most people feel to protect children — even when the child has become the monster.
Norwegian writer/director Eskil Vogt (co-writer of The Worst Person in the World) takes all of our assumptions about children and their innocence and naïveté, and dumps them on their head, forcing us to look at all of the ugly things children are capable of. Young Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), the focus of The Innocents, is a troublemaker.
Cute as a button in her overalls, she pinches her older autistic and non-verbal sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) when her parents aren’t looking, spits off a balcony, and kills a worm for no reason – all within the first few minutes of the film. It’s clear that she’s up to no good, which begs the question — is Ida troubled, possibly disturbed, or is she just pushing boundaries, testing out how to relieve her frustrations like a regular kid?
The Innocents takes place over a summer in a suburban Norwegian apartment complex, joining the ranks of horror films that take place almost entirely during bright sunny days. Ida and her family have just moved in, and she and her sister explore the playground and the woods, making new friends. Despite the sunshine and laughter of children, there’s something sinister building.
While it’s normal for children to push boundaries and see what they can get away with, it’s no less disturbing to witness than if an adult was the one behaving so inappropriately. Ida and her new friend Ben (Sam Ashraf) pinch at Anna’s skin, just to see if she will respond. Ben – with Ida as witness and support – tortures and kills a cat. It’s a brutal scene that goes on for far too long.There’s a disconnect with Ben — he’s named the cat, spent time with the cat, and seems to shed a tear when he first hurts the animal. Despite this, he goes ahead and kills the cat anyway.
As the film progresses, we meet young Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim). She appears as truly innocent; we meet her as she brushes a doll’s hair, speaking gently to it. Aisha befriends Anna, and as they begin to spend time with Ben and Ida, the four children discover that together, they have powers. These superpowers include telepathy and telekinesis, and their powers are strongest when they are together. The four children become inextricably connected, for better or for worse.
Although there are adults present in The Innocents, they are never central to the story; instead, they are the background from where the central characters came. Anna and Ida have a caring mother and father, and Aisha a sweet but struggling mother. Ben is also being raised by a single mother, although one who seems much less kind. Voigt keeps the cameras on the kids level; the audience is never looking down at them; we look up at the adults with them.
Hurting the cat was not the first of Ben’s violent acts, nor is it the worst. The only boy of the group, the only one who’s bullied and possibly treated unwell at home, Ben’s penchant for violence and anger is much stronger than the others’, making Ida’s cruel curiosity seem lighthearted (and, perhaps actually innocent) in comparison. He often acts out in a way he barely seems to understand, with an anger so explosive he can’t contain it until it is too late. As the others discover how dangerous Ben can be, they band together to try to stop him from hurting anyone.
While Anna’s autism is an interesting way to explore the concept of innocence, The Innocents takes an unfortunate turn in an ableist direction; part of the groups’ newly discovered superpowers involve an ability to communicate with Anna, and eventually, she begins to speak. This discovery makes her mother cry, relieved her daughter can make words, and she pushes Anna to continue. It’s disappointing to see; in the first half of the film, Anna was accepted as she is, not pushed to be “normal”, and no one was looking to “fix” her.
To say that this treatment of an autistic character is unnecessary is a severe understatement; autistic people — especially non-verbal autistic people — are already underrepresented, or represented in fictionalized and inaccurate ways. Alva Brynsmo Ramstad does a beautiful job portraying Anna, and her performance is no less wonderful when her character begins to change, but I can’t help but wish that her character had been left as she was, and that Vogt had never tried to make her speak.
While The Innocents is certainly one of the more harrowing and disturbing thrillers to come out in recent years, I can’t help but wonder: could Vogt have been just as subversive and boundary-pushing, could he have made audiences just as uncomfortable without the animal cruelty and mistreatment of an Autistic person? I’m pretty sure the answer to that question is yes — it’d still be a violent and uncomfortable film. Despite The Innocents missteps, it’s an extremely chilling horror film.
As Ben begins to use his powers in more malevolent ways, the film progresses towards an inevitable conclusion. Despite a nearly 2 hour runtime, The Innocents is captivating and never feels a moment too long. There are scenes of violence that are truly hard to watch; I wouldn’t recommend this film to any parent. The child actors are all wonderful, their superpowers sublime in a way that makes The Innocents all the more disturbing.
The Innocents comes to Shudder on August 18, 2022.
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