Panic Fest: The kids aren’t alright in The Innocents

There’s creepy children, and then there’s creepy Norwegian children.
Featured The Innocents 1 1

The Innocents. // Courtesy IFC

[Panic Fest is KC’s premiere horror and science fiction film festival. Celebrating its 10th year, here is our full coverage of films making an appearance.]

Comparisons between Eskil Vogt’s film The Innocents and X-Men are inevitable; both involve children with powerful psychic and psychokinetic abilities, the control of which causes a great deal of difficulty for themselves and the people around them. But even though it’s come up as a close analog in many other reviews, that’s basically where the comparison stops. 

Rather, the horror film from the screenwriter behind Thelma and The Worst Person in the World feels more like an austere marriage of Stephen King and Graham Greene, combining supernaturally-gifted children with an exploration of what happens when neglected, curious kids are left to fend for themselves. Think King’s Firestarter meets Greene’s The Destructors.

The Innocents is an unsettling slow-burn of a movie that’s often shockingly cruel but has an almost literary quality to the way it unfolds. Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) and her family—including her severely autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad)—have just moved into a new apartment in a tower block filled with families. Ida’s first friend is Ben (Sam Ashraf), a lonely, sullen kid who on day one reveals to Ida that he can move objects with his mind.

Ben isn’t the only gifted child in the building. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) can read minds and establishes a psychic link with the non-communicative Anna that allows Anna to speak. Anna, to the amazement of her little sister, might be the strongest of any of the children, able to read minds and physically manipulate objects with surprising force.

The kids’ proximity to each other amplifies their abilities, but things get sticky when Ben, a tiny psychopath in the making, starts getting power-hungry.

Vogt and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen shoot everything in pale, naturalistic tones that simultaneously evoke a pastoral, playful sense of childhood and a chilly remove. The latter element becomes increasingly felt as the story gets darker, presenting a series of violent events with grim realism. 

The violence in The Innocents hits a couple of controversial areas (apologies in advance to any cat lovers out there), and all of it is addressed with head-on frankness. The film’s young stars do an impressive job of shouldering all that heavy subject matter, acting and reacting with believable child logic to stuff that would make most adults recoil.

It should be said that as intriguing as The Innocents is, it does use its neurodivergent characters and characters of color in disappointing ways, either as passive victim, conniving villain, or magically-abled savant. These characters’ identities (with the exception of Anna) don’t really define them or the story in a larger sense, since it’s more about universal themes of childhood innocence and anger. However, the optics are less than ideal.

Overall, fans of Scandinavian filmmakers like Lars von Trier, Tomas Alfredson, Thomas Vinterberg, and frequent Vogt collaborator Joachim Trier will probably find much to connect with in The Innocents.

The film straddles between arthouse refinement and speculative genre, with a disturbing undertone. It’s not necessarily transgressive, but it tests those boundaries much like one of the movie’s pint-sized powerhouses, checking to see how closely their parents are watching.

The Innocents premieres at Panic Fest at the Screenland Theater on Monday, May 2.

Categories: Movies