There’s no singular definition for a coming of age film, but the gist shared by all amounts to a young person crossing into adulthood… in some fashion. For some it’s as simple as forming a romantic relationship, while for others it’s about finding responsibility and purpose. For writer Eskil Vogt, though, a coming of age film sees his characters find a truth within themselves that just might determine the course of their lives. His subjects are typically teens (Thelma, 2017) or young adults (Oslo August 31st, 2011; The Worst Person in the World, 2021), but his latest feature focuses on even younger protagonists. The Innocents is about a group of preteens struggling with newfound powers, and it’s not a fight all of them will win.
It’s summertime, and the kids living in a large block of apartment buildings spend their days playing in the nearby woods or on the playground, making new friends, or bullying smaller children. They’re testing boundaries, both their own and those of others, and far from the watchful eyes of adults things are taking a turn for the worse. Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her family are new to the area, and the first friend she makes is Benjamin (Sam Ashraf). She shares that her autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) can be pinched really hard without her feeling any pain, and Benjamin shares that he can move very small objects with his mind. Another girl named Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) has a power of her own in that she can hear people’s thoughts and feel what they feel — she’s the one that tells them that Anna actually can feel pain, but is unable to express it — and for a short while the foursome are loose friends.
For a short while.
The Innocents focuses on four young children, innocents by any definition, developing their own lines, boundaries, and moralities. We all find our own limits and empathies as children, some sooner than others and some never at all, and Vogt puts these four on a crash course in separating right from wrong. It’s a supernatural, genre-fied twist to something everyone goes through, and the result is a slow burn gem delivering both horror and hope for humanity.
The film is Vogt’s seventh feature as writer and second as director after the brilliant but underseen Blind (2014). He has many talents as a writer, and the strongest among them is his ability to capture so beautifully and honestly the reality of youth. He does with The Innocents what he’s done for young adult characters several times before by making them so raw and relatable. We’ve all been some combination of these kids as our emotional selves were built piece by piece, one act of kindness, cruelty, or passivity after the next. Curiosity leads to pushing the envelope, and no matter the dramatic nature of the plotted outcome, Vogt’s films succeed in large part because we are these characters and these characters are us.
Ida’s own quiet cruelty — she puts glass in Anna’s shoe and joins Benjamin in dropping a cat down several flights of stairs — is challenged by how far Benjamin goes on his own. While even Anna is revealed to be in possession of special powers, young Ida is seemingly the only one unencumbered by such a weight. As such, she becomes audiences’ window into the world, and it’s her choices that make up the journey through to a highly satisfying finale. In keeping with the film’s pacing and style as a whole, this is not the kind of third act you’d find in an X-Men movie or some other Hollywood production on superpowers, but it’s no less effective for its relatively low-key and emotionally affecting execution.
Plot developments are being kept deliberately vague here, but trust that Vogt pulls no punches when it comes to the film’s horror elements. There are some truly visceral beats here enhanced by nerve-shredding tension and horrifically effective sound design. The Innocents is a horror film in which no character is truly safe, but the film avoids a simple black and white approach to good and evil. Benjamin is arguably the film’s villain character, for lack of a better word, but his pain at the cards he’s been dealt is damn clear. From a bruise on his stomach that goes uncommented on to the voluminous tears he sheds in the emotional comedown after striking out at the girls, he’s a boy filled with feelings but with with no sense of how to handle them. It’s heartbreaking to witness, and it makes the events that follow all the more unsettling.
As dark as some moments get here, The Innocents is a gorgeous, dreamy-looking film. It’s almost as if cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen has channeled his own inner child in recreating the hazy, lazy days of a childhood summer spent playing outdoors with no sense of time’s passage. Vogt lets the camera speak even more for the characters than their dialogue, and all four of the young actors prove to be exceptional talents. Each earns our heart at one point or another, whether their seemingly aligned with good or bad, and we’re reminded throughout that these aren’t characters beyond their years — they’re children, and in they’re in way over their heads.
Fans of the excellent Thelma (written by Vogt but directed by Joachim Trier) might wonder if the two films exist in the same universe, and it’s entirely possible. Both explore the idea of young people capable of things beyond the norm, and the beauty, drama, and terror that come alongside the learning process isn’t all that different whether they’re nine or ninteen. The Innocents ultimately fits quite comfortably in the “killer kids” subgenre despite not being played for cheap thrills or gory gags, but as anyone who was ever a kid can tell you, growing up can be pretty damn horrifying.
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