It’s hard not to feel we’re putting a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the youngest generation. Whether we like to admit it or not, our actions will require them to shoulder many burdens that we are not ready for ourselves: climate catastrophe, the fallout of a global pandemic, increasingly polarising inequalities across the world. To paraphrase a certain beloved Uncle Ben (r.i.p.), director Eskil Vogt’s unflinching and observant supernatural drama The Innocents explores what could happen (or indeed, what is already happening) when children are endowed with more power, and hence more responsibilities, than we would like to imagine.
Nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) move to a new housing estate in Norway with their parents during the summer. With much of the local residents away on holiday, the sisters start exploring the nearby parks, woods and countryside, encountering two neighbouring children, Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), whom they quickly befriend. When the four of them are together, they discover that they have telekinetic and telepathic powers, which they use to move small rocks and play games of telephone. However, battle lines become drawn when Ben starts using his powers to cause pain to those around him.
However, far from the descent into a quasi-Lord of the Flies knock-of I was anticipating, The Innocents proves to be an even-handed and sympathetic examination of childhood with outsized burdens. The film does an impressive job of presenting the scenarios, even the most shocking, without judgement. (Indeed, I feel it’s important to include a spoiler that there are some distressing scenes involving animal cruelty which, while necessary to the narrative, are very difficult to watch.) Some of the children perform extreme acts of violence, yet the viewer is never allowed to forget that they are children. Instead of determining whether these acts are done out of a sense of inherent evil or childish but extreme curiosity, we are left to observe their reactions in the aftermath, to draw (or not) our own conclusions.
The performances are uniformly excellent, with the four leads setting a very high bar for the quality of child actors (or, come to it, any actors) and it would be hard to imagine the feature coming together so well, when it depends on a moral distance in which performance is required to bridge the gap. There is a genuine sense of gravitas to these characters who carry an ethical weight and whose emotional and psychological connections go beyond what is humanly possible. These characters are nuanced and aware without losing their childish attributes, a testament to both Vogt’s strong script and the astonishing young cast. If there’s any justice in the world, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, who plays the enduringly compassionate Aisha, will be a live-action Disney princess some day soon.
One could all but overlook the supernatural element of The Innocents, but this works to the film’s strengths: the super powers are treated by both the text and the children with a similar amount of acceptance and canniness: what’s happening is unusual but not unexpected. Brightly shot to reflect the beauty of the Norwegian summer, The Innocents invites the viewer to reconsider their view of innocence in a world that is never easy to navigate and is likely to become a lot more difficult.
The Innocents is playing in Irish cinemas from Friday the 20th of May.