The Innocents

People always talk about how resilient children are. The kids at the center of The Innocents put that notion to the test. They're suffering, and the movie asks us to consider that some will persevere, whereas others will crumble. Deeply disturbing at times, this Norwegian thriller from writer/director Eskil Vogt (co-writer of The Worst Person in the World) offers an unflinching look at the traumas that can affect children, then introduces a supernatural spin. Your nerves are frayed by the end, but it's totally worth it.

Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) has just moved into a new apartment complex with her parents and her non-verbal autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). She's not at all happy about this move, stating a desire to go back to their previous home. Ida engages in passive-aggressiveness to express her displeasure, including hiding shards of broken glass inside Anna's shoe. Gradually, she makes friends. Ben (Sam Ashraf) is bullied by the teenagers in the complex, and sometimes by his mother. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth) has a severe case of vitiligo and a mom who's visibly depressed. As Ida gets to know them, surprising secrets come out. Ben can move things with his mind, whereas Aisha can hear the thoughts of others – including Anna.

What starts off as fun and games gradually yields to something much darker, especially once Ben displays a willingness to use his power antisocially. (Cat lovers should prepare to be aghast.) With inadequate supervision, the children initially play around with the abilities, then have to decide how to handle it as Ben begins to unravel. In some respects, the depiction of kids who don't have or don't rely on the adult figures in their lives is the most troubling aspect of The Innocents.

Vogt generates considerable suspense from showing the various ways Aisha and Ben can use their powers, as well as from pondering what Aisha's mind-reading means for Anna. Here's a girl who has not communicated since she was three. Now, via this other child, Ida has access to her thoughts. This is not a natural situation, so what should she do? Telling her parents would surely freak them out, plus it would expose the gifts of the others. There is great poignancy in scenes addressing that question. Other scenes are downright chilling. As Ben's wrath grows, Ida – who already has an angry streak – has to consider drastic means of stopping him. A ton of weight gets put on this little girl, and we truly don't know whether she has the fortitude to carry it.

The Innocents introduces us to children who are adrift and hurting. Aside from the unsettling nature of the story, the film packs a punch because Vogt gets astonishing performances from his young actors. In fact, not a single performance here feels like a performance, which gives it a sense of verisimilitude that burrows deep under your skin. Rakel Lenora Fløttum is particularly good as Ida, conveying with mere looks that awful feeling of being overwhelmed with resentment and not having a clue where to put it. The other standout is Sam Ashraf, who suggests Ben's internal suffering with all the nuance of a seasoned professional. Everything in the picture hits harder because the stars are so convincing.

A lot of shocking things happen in The Innocents, none of them predictable. Not knowing what's going to happen or where the story is heading guarantees that you're on edge from start to finish. At the same time that it's eerie, the movie also has a thoughtful, affecting depiction of children in a state of despair. This is a horror movie with real stakes for the characters and, consequently, non-stop tension for the viewer.

out of four

The Innocents is unrated, but contains adult language and some graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 57 minutes.