TEXAS, USA — The kids might not be entirely all right, if this weekend’s release slate is any indication. Two new movies opening across the country deal with the tormenting burdens placed on children cursed with abilities they don’t wholly understand or control.
The funny thing is that while “Firestarter” is adapted from a Stephen King story, it’s the scorched terrain of Eskil Vogt’s clenched-fist Norwegian nightmare “The Innocents” that more vividly recalls the horror maestro’s penchant for the fire-and-brimstone angst of youth. King would appreciate Vogt’s tight focus on character, might see a bit of himself in the film’s dovetailing of mayhem and envy. Certainly both King and Vogt recognize allegory can only go so far in tales about youngsters who might not know their monsters from their guardian angels—and for whom facing terror head-on is the only acceptable reality.
Chiseled with the magnetism of hyperdeliberate European filmmaking, “The Innocents” concerns itself with a quartet of young companions – two of them, Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), are siblings – who live in the same apartment building. They while away the days exploring dense nearby forests, running through the arteries of the concrete block they reside in, and toying with unexplainable abilities that allow them to send rocks flying or read each other’s thoughts.
Are these traits genetic? Radioactive? The result of heinous experiments they’ve been brainwashed to forget? Viewers hoping for clarity won’t find it here; “The Innocents” may initially seem aimless, but that’s only because our context is strictly limited to the here and now of these tykes’ lives. Ominous notes ring through early images of broken glass being quietly placed into a shoe and faint suggestions of parental neglect, and all the while we’re just waiting for them to grow into a full-throated melody.
Vogt’s approach is staunchly observational, which means much of the viewer's experience is defined by trying to decipher why watching the kids playing their way through boredom feels so acutely sinister. Maybe it’s because of how Anna is written; a child with autism, Vogt walks a mighty fine line between empowering her and othering her when she discovers abilities of her own. Maybe it’s because of the way nature vs. nurture seems moot once meanness is accepted as the most sensible way to navigate the world, adding an extra crunch to early bursts of violence (cat-lovers, you’ve been warned).
Maybe it’s because we’ve seen Josh Trank’s “Chronicle,” a similarly grounded story about adolescents discovering supernatural abilities that takes a deep and deadly plunge into outsider frustration. While it's possible we wouldn’t have this film without that one, what makes Vogt’s film the more impressive accomplishment is how he draws both empathy and outright terror from the same rich idea that children tend to act in damn strange ways, often for reasons they themselves can’t explain.
While “The Innocents” makes little space for expository description, it creates a hell of a lot of it for tensions to simmer, spread and, eventually, dominate. Briefly pitching itself as a movie about a child’s anxieties upon moving to a new place – what have these walls seen? What is making those shadows? – the ecosystem of “The Innocents” is soon defined as one of curious kids and their casual cruelties, exacerbated by strange newfound powers. Are these genre conventions merely a fakeout? Thirty or so minutes into “The Innocents,” you start to wonder. Stick with it. Once the 45-minute mark is reached, you start to grip the edge of your seat (or the arm of your couch, as it were; the movie is releasing on VOD from IFC Midnight as well as theatrically).
“The Innocents” is icy and sometimes detached, but this is not to say it’s without passion or purpose. Even while freakish phantoms creep on the screen, our worry never leaves the side of the vulnerable young ensemble Vogt has envisioned and assembled. The writer-director is fresh off an Oscar nomination for his work on the screenplay to the Joachim Trier-directed “The Worst Person in the World,” a movie that swells the heart while “The Innocents” grips it. The films ostensibly couldn’t be more different, but in both Vogt places his respective protagonists in thickets of existential confusion.
Often the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, will turn his camera upside down for a moody tracking shot, as if to render the world as a place where illogic is the only thing that makes any bit of good sense. More effective are the repeated establishing shots of the mountainous apartment building where the movie unfolds; the structure feels less like a home and increasingly like a prison or lab the more the kids test the limits of their powers. Its ambience of hazy mystery doesn’t let up, which can make the pace sometimes crawl to a trudge. But “The Innocents” is never less than compelling, its craft never less than committed.
At the same time, Vogt manages to leave just enough of a crack in this movie’s calloused exterior for a ray of pathos to shine through. It proves valuable in the ultimate arc of the movie’s grim trajectory—a reminder that there are times and places in life when the line between good and evil isn’t so easily discerned. The more the children experiment with their abilities, the more the suspicion builds that they will grow into the malevolence we’re closely searching for. That eventual jolts of brutality are underscored with the unrestrained bounds of youthful rivalry brings Vogt’s themes into barbed focus: This can be a terrible world for children, but not in the least when they’re terrible to each other.
"The Innocents" is now in theaters and available to rent on VOD. It's not rated. Runtime: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
Starring: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim.
Written and directed by Eskil Vogt
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