I’m not quite sure, but it’s possible he was watching The children of the corn it made me realize that I definitely never wanted kids. There was something particularly traumatic about hurting young people, and it was far scarier to me than any supernatural creature looking for blood. With evil children, you have all the sadism humanity is capable of, without the shame and restraint that adulthood ideally instills. It’s freezing.
While there have been many films about sociopathic children, including some legendary ones that starred in Cannes like Haeneke’s Extraordinary White ribbon that links childhood bullying to the forces that gave birth to Nazism and the Holocaust, there has never been anything so calm and confident as Eskil Vogt‘s Innocents. The director is best known to international audiences as a screenwriter, writing the equally excellent and award-winning Cannes entry. The worst person in the world, as well as his paranoid drama of 2014 Blinded who landed in Berlin.
With Innocents, Vogt channels his fatherhood into a story of young children who are particularly terrible to each other. There are echoes here of Stephen King’s fascination with messed up kids who have new powers without yet being able to control them – think The brilliant, or even Fire starter – but the film that immediately came to my mind is the exceptional film by Sebastián Cordero the Chronicle. The differences, of course, are obvious – with this film the children are properly teenagers, and as with Ginger biscuits from 2000 on, there are often clear links between the chaos of puberty and the desire to destroy all civilization.
Vogt’s story, on the other hand, is much harder to pull off because the evil is much earlier. This forces him to get performances from very young comedians (our main character, Ida, played by Rakel Lenora Flottum, is 9 years old), while slipping between credibility and broader narrative concerns. It is as a tribute to Vogt’s patience, talented young actors, and directorial skills that he pulled some of the festival’s most believable performances from children who, presumably, have no murderous intent. during their daytime school activities.
The story involves Ida, her autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), and their connection to Ben (Sam Ashraf) and Aïcha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), creating a quartet of individuals who see the hijackings of the playing field amount to much more diabolical circumstances. Ashraf in particular is exceptional, once again navigating what could easily have been a two-dimensional role towards something wonderfully nuanced. It’s that austere, Scandinavian quasi-documentary tone coupled with exacerbated circumstances that translates into an extremely effective and disturbing story.
It would be easy to fall into a simplistic understanding of the dynamics at play, especially since Vogt has chosen actors from different backgrounds for roles beyond the Norwegian stereotype with blue and blonde eyes. Racial and even gender aspects inform, but the reaction is far from simplistic, with the immediate acceptance of one another illustrating the general ability of children to see through the overt differences that divide adults, yet showing that there are much more sinister ways of finding things to keep people apart.
The film is dark and edgy, but lacks the kinetic sparkle that can make audiences seek it out for visceral sensations. Likewise, it can be too unsettling for those who are used to a much more placid story. It’s that uplifting tone that makes it a film worth looking out for if you’re open to its provocative narrative, as it’s navigating all of this stuff that proves Vogt is a master of filmmaking. precise and narrative intention. If you’re ready to be disturbed, but don’t need to be scared every now and then to stay engaged if you’re away from the horrors you see, there’s a lot to admire.
Innocents is a scary and creatively rich film that carries its influences on its sleeves while creating a bold and original vision. Thanks to the exceptional performances of the children and to the wild circumstances which they contribute to bring to life, it is a family film which has teeth; a story where the occasional cruelty is compounded by the growing realization that during this tenuous time between childhood and adolescence, the ability to be caring or catastrophic is an open book. It’s one of those international gems worth looking for, and while it may not meet the expectations of the genre of other works it openly draws its inspiration from, the end result is quite simply extraordinary.
/ Movie rating: 7.5 out of 10
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