"The Innocents" a disturbing, devastating child's-eye nightmare

The Innocents (2022)

Only some of the kids are all right in “The Innocents,” a dread-inducing Norwegian summertime nightmare that could force adults to be pedophobics (or scared of children). Writer-director Eskil Vogt (who wrote 2021’s Oscar-nominated “The Worst Person in the World”) taps into how children see the world outside of their parents’ supervision and how we all develop morality through upbringing and personal exploration. It's also about unchecked power in the kid world. Like a comparatively wispy and more observational “X-Men” on an indie budget, “The Innocents” is as disturbing as it is devastating, and it’s always absorbing. 

9-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her family (the parents are played by Ellen Dorrit Pedersen and Morten Svartveit) move into an apartment complex in Norway. She doesn’t miss a chance to pinch her autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) or invite her new friend Ben (Sam Ashraf) to do the same. As Ida spends more time playing and exploring the nearby forest with Ben, she discovers he has special abilities. He can, in fact, make objects move with his mind. Worse, he can “fetch” people, making them do anything he wants. While the equally gifted Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), an only child in the building, joins the group and helps Anna have a breakthrough with her speech, Ben begins using his telekinetic and mind powers for bad. Before more tragedy occurs, it’s up to Ida to stop him.

If anyone ever thinks child actors can be the worst, look at the naturalistic work Eskil Vogt gets out of his young cast, ages 7 to 11. As the face of the film, Rakel Lenora Fløttum is outstanding as Ida, bringing a quiet curiosity to the only kid without supernatural gifts. Without coming across as merely a chilly brat, Ida feels alone, acting cruelly toward her nonverbal sibling who requires more attention. Sam Ashraf is also chilling and nuanced as Ben, whose less-than-loving life at home becomes expressed in sinister violence. There’s good, evil, and somewhere in between, but all of these kids are compelling in their own way. 

Horrific stuff happens in “The Innocents,” but the film always carefully tests boundaries without being shocking just for the sake of it. In setting an understated tone through an elegant visual language, writer-director Eskil Vogt manages to make the most shocking moments even more so when we least expect them during a routine day with innocent children. In fact, animal lovers should take warning for sure (and this happens relatively early on). Vogt also never resorts to handholding, or explaining away the rules of these powers; they just are. It’s inevitable that we could see an American remake getting more explicit and spelling everything out, but Vogt’s “The Innocents” is one of the more uncomfortably tense yet sensitive depictions of childhood with added superpowers.

Grade: B +

IFC Films is releasing “The Innocents” (118 min.) in theaters and on demand on May 13, 2022.