By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad and Sam Ashraf
Written and directed by Eskil Vogt
THE INNOCENTS is the most chilling, deeply unsettling horror film so far this year, evoking psychological disturbances that will crawl around in your mind for a while after you see it. Yet it is also, in certain ways, one of the most subtle. Dealing with the perennial subject of children with potentially dangerous psychic gifts, it eschews big effects blowouts and showy filmmaking tricks in favor of getting to the emotional core of the subject, and trusts the audience to make certain connections and assumptions without spelling them out. It is as artful as horror gets, but don’t for a second think of it as an “art film” with the stodginess that implies.
Featured at the current Boston Underground Film Festival and seeing theatrical/VOD release May 13, THE INNOCENTS wouldn’t be the movie it is without the remarkable performances writer/director Eskil Vogt has elicited from his preteen cast. As the title suggests, Vogt–a frequent scripting collaborator with the celebrated director Joachim Trier (the duo are currently up for a Best Screenplay Oscar for THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD)–here explores the nature of childhood innocence, and how it can hide, or be subsumed by, interior corruption. That marvelous young ensemble is led by Rakel Lenora Fløttum as 9-year-old Ida, newly arrived at a Norwegian tower block with her family, including her autistic, slightly older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). It’s the middle of summer and most of the other kid residents are away on holiday, and Ida befriends one of the few still around, Ben (Sam Ashraf). While playing in the woods behind the block’s playground, Ben shows Ida a fun trick he knows: the ability to move objects with his mind. Just small ones…for now.
The movie doesn’t initially treat Ben’s gift as anything threatening, and in fact, it is Ida who at first seems to have more capacity for cruelty. Out of jealousy over her parents devoting most of their attention to Anna’s special needs, Ida pinches her sister when they’re not looking, and puts broken glass in one of her shoes. But it’s just one of the many ways Vogt subverts our expectations that Ben proves to have Ida beat by a mile when it comes to sadistic tendencies. (I won’t give away the specifics of how he demonstrates them, but animal lovers, take caution.) And since Ben is bullied by older youths in the block, it seems only a matter of time before he starts turning his burgeoning powers on them.
THE INNOCENTS’ story is much more complex than that particular arc, however, also encompassing Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a girl with vitiligo that makes her, like Ben, an outcast. She too has a touch of the psychic to her, and develops a symbiotic connection to Anna, which seems to draw out Anna’s own extra-mental capacities. The idea of people on the spectrum bearing hidden cerebral gifts is a conceit that often flirts with patronizing or exploiting the subject, but Vogt surehandedly makes it a key and legitimate emotional component of his story, particularly as it suggests to Anna and Ida’s parents that their daughter might be gaining the ability to outwardly communicate.
We know better, however, and that’s just one of the ways in which Vogt skillfully evokes unease in THE INNOCENTS. As their powers become more pronounced, he explores how kids young enough to still be grappling with the concepts of right and wrong might give in to their capacity for doing the latter, or maintain a determination to do the former. Or, perhaps, do something wrong that might be for the greater good. The result is a series of breath-stopping, heart-pounding sequences in the movie’s latter half, in which the possibilities of violence become just as frightening as the violence itself. When the brutality does occur, Vogt doesn’t flinch in his presentation, but by this point we’ve become so invested with the characters that the impact is overwhelmingly emotional as well as visceral.
Impeccably crafted from top to bottom, from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s evocative cinematography to the eerie music and sound design by Pessi Levanto and Gustaf Berger respectively, THE INNOCENTS nonetheless belongs to its little leads. From the beginning, Fløttum engages our sympathies, allowing us to understand her initial bad behavior and then feel true concern when she’s confronted with far worse. Ashraf and Asheim, as the dark and light sides of the same coin, are compelling and, in Ashraf’s case, chilling beyond their years. Perhaps the most impressive performance is given by Ramstad, who is not on the spectrum but is 100 percent convincing, and at times heartbreaking, as she inhabits the role of Anna. If Ida is THE INNOCENTS’ heart, Anna becomes its soul, and Fløttum and Ramstad ensure that the movie is as moving as it is frightening–and that’s a lot.