THE INNOCENTS (De uskyldige)

Producer: Maria Ekerhovd   Director: Eskil Vogt   Screenplay: Eskil Vogt   Cast: Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Sam Ashraf, Ellen Dorrit Pedersen, Morten Svartveit, Kadra Yusuf and Lise Tønne   Distributor: IFC Midnight

Grade: B+

Childhood is certainly not the stuff of sweetness and light in Eskil Vogt’s disturbing chiller, a stripped-down, simplified “Village of the Damned” descendant that offers a grittily naturalistic portrait of a quartet of youngsters with special talents in a grim Norwegian high-rise complex.  An “elevated” horror film that builds an atmosphere of deep disquiet without resorting to gross-out effects, Vogt’s ironically titled second feature rests on the premise that in the young, even in kids who appear most cherubic, a “Lord of the Flies” turn is already present as a possibility.  “The Innocents” dramatizes that in an unnerving, and sobering, way, employing the paranormal as a narrative device.

The dichotomy is shown at the very start, as angelic nine-year old Ida (the astonishingly unaffected Rakel Lenora Fløttum) is shown pinching her older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), an autistic child without the ability to speak, when their parents (Ellen Dorrit Petersen and Morten Svartveit) aren’t looking.  Ida is clearly resentful of the attention that Anna, who spends her time twirling dishes and pans on the floor, lost in her own world, gets from their mom and dad.  She’s also upset that the family is being uprooted and moved to the high-rise, a grey structure with a forest nearby, just as summer vacation season is beginning and she’ll have to make new friends when lots of people will be away.

But she quickly encounters Ben (Sam Ashraf), who delights her by exhibiting an incipient telekinetic power that she compares to her double-jointed elbows.  But while Ida has some family problems, Ben’s pain is far greater: the son of a single mother (Lisa Tønne) who largely ignores him, he’s bullied by older boys at the complex, and as his ability grows stronger so does his anger. 

The new friends are soon joined by Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), also living with a single mother (Kadra Yusuf) who is, unlike Ben’s, sympathetic and protective.  Aisha suffers from vitiligo, but possesses an ability to hear others’ thoughts, and develops a mental bond with Anna.

The script follow the drastic changes in the relationships among these four as Ben’s powers develop and his use of them becomes ever darker, beginning with animal abuse (cat-lovers should brace themselves for a sequence they’ll surely find distressing) and progressing, or degenerating, to inflicting harm on those he feels have wronged him, using his powers even to bend others to do his will.  He is himself torn by his impulses, but so is Ida as she sees what he’s doing.  For both of them the result is devastating.  A final shot that emphasizes how the larger world has blissfully ignored what’s going on among the children—and continues to do so—is a wrenching commentary of the society in which they live.

At its basis “The Innocents” is a coming-of-age story combining elements of horror, thriller and domestic drama, in which the process of early maturation takes very different paths for its various young characters.  Vogt’s direction of his four leads exhibits remarkable sensitivity, drawing performances from all of them that rarely strike a false note—and his work with the adults is no less secure: a sequence in which Ida’s parents react when Anna, under Aisha’s encouragement, utters a single syllable after years of silence, is very moving.

The film is also striking technically. Simone Grau Roney’s production design captures the brooding ambience of the building, courtyard and surrounding woods, and cinematographer Sturia Brandth Grøvlen gives the interiors, like the looming stairwells, a shadowy, sinister feel while frequently shooting from a child’s perspective, or showing the kids as tiny within a wide, enveloping environment.  The sound design by Gustaf Berger and Gisle Tveito and Perssi Levanto’s unnerving score combine to increase the film’s moody texture, as does Jens Christian Fodstad somber, stately editing.

What “The Innocents” suggests about the inner lives of children is provocative, and is all the more unsettling because of the skill with which it’s been made.  Love or hate the result, however, its power is undeniable.