Not every child with nascent paranormal abilities gets scooped up into Professor Xavier’s school for incipient X-Men. Some, like those in Eskil Vogt’s superbly atmospheric, deftly crafted horror “The Innocents,” live in massive Norwegian tower blocks — concrete jungles set in deep forests bathed in cool, endless Nordic summer sun — and hone their powers on rocks and deeply unfortunate cats. This superior chiller is both a satisfying genre exercise and a minute observation of the process by which young children acquire morality; its most striking aspect may just be the empathy Vogt displays for his 7- to 11-year-old stars, and the extraordinary juvenile performances that empathy brings out.
The first glimmer of the supernatural is a tiny one: Blink and you’ll miss it. A bottle cap, dropped from a little girl’s fist, falls crookedly, zagging from where she stands to land a few feet away. The girl is Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum), a new arrival to this apartment complex, along with her parents (Ellen Dorrit Pedersen and Morten Svartveit) and autistic elder sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). And the harmless sample of telekinesis comes courtesy of Ben (Sam Ashraf), the bullied boy Ida has just met and befriended, the way children do.
Ida’s reaction to his demonstration of practical magic is fascination, delight — she is entertained but not shocked. In response, she shows off her double-jointed elbows: the hidden superpower of Vogt’s tight, taut script (Vogt is Joachim Trier’s regular screenwriter and wrote Trier’s Cannes 2021 Competition title “The Worst Person in the World”) is that it deeply understands how Ida might see bendy elbows and moving things with your mind as roughly equivalent abilities. When everything is new to you, nothing is especially strange; fear of the unusual is an acquired habit.
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In any case, at first it seems like Ida might be the one to be afraid of. Resentful of the attention that her sister’s condition necessitates from her parents, she pinches an unresponsive Anna cruelly when their mother isn’t looking, and leaves her alone at the sandpit when they’re supposed to be playing together. But their arrival in this estate has brought about a change: Anna seems to be psychically connected to Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), a pretty little girl with vitiligo who lives in a nearby apartment and can hear the whispered thoughts of all her neighbors at night. As the four children start to interact in ways both sweet and deeply sinister (cat lovers be warned), it becomes clear that apart from Ida, they all possess psychic abilities. Under their influence, Anna starts to regain her lost language skills, much to her parents’ heartbreaking joy, while Ben’s powers take a much darker turn.
In contrast to Ida’s blond, white nuclear family, Ben and Aisha are ethnic children in one-parent households. Aisha’s doting mother cries with the tap running to mask the sound; Ben’s more neglectful mom mostly ignores him, boiling hot dogs for dinner and talking on the phone. But rather than make any particular social comment, Vogt evokes a universal sense of childhood from the child’s perspective, from the way the kids innately know to keep each other’s secrets from the adults in their lives to the way Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cool-toned photography hovers around three feet off the ground, at child’s-eye height.
As in “Blind,” Vogt’s shimmering and witty directorial debut (which also starred Pedersen, so good here in her small role as Ida and Anna’s mother), there’s a terrific use of shallow-focus close-up. Here, evocative details of childhood abound — Velcro straps on sneakers, a fingernail picking at a scab — before we punch out to a graphic wide of the brutalist buildings that is suddenly upside down. This disparity in scale and orientation creates a strong sense of place while keeping precise geography mysterious: We never know which stairwell abuts whose apartment. Within this self-contained world (a kind of perversion of a fairy-tale castle in the middle of a forest) individual spaces are porous, floating into one another like the plangent notes of Pessi Levanto’s unnerving score, like the children speaking through walls into each other’s minds, like the way broken glass put in Anna’s shoes causes Aisha’s foot to bleed.
It’s a clever twist to focus on the one kid in this little band who is not able to read minds, or possess bodies, or break the legs of bullies from a hundred meters away. In Ida, and particularly in Fløttum’s remarkably assured and self-possessed performance, Vogt finds a perfect avatar for his provocative yet persuasive ideas about the innocence (or otherwise) of children. Even as the horror elements escalate, and Ben develops a truly disturbing knack for dispatching his enemies in the most psychologically ruinous way imaginable, “The Innocents” retains its connection to the real world, as a parable about the thin line between good and evil on which these kids are testing their balance, as along a narrow verge or a crack in the sidewalk. Who knows what event will be the fateful puff of wind that topples them to one side or the other.
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