Creepy, demonic children have long been one of horror’s go-to tropes, and for good reason: taking someone adorable and making them do evil things is a great scare tactic. In most cases, the cinematic gold lies in the juxtaposition of two extremes. Little kids are supposed to be innocent, loving, jubilant creatures without a care in the world. When a film tries to scare us with fucked up toddlers, we’re meant to assume that we’re watching something utterly different from the small children we know. Whether the little brats are possessed by demons or are actually the ghosts of murder victims, the distinction is always clear: kids are supposed to be good, but these ones are bad.
Yet the latest entry in the child horror genre, Eskil Vogt’s “The Innocents,” opts to take a very different path. Instead of juxtaposing childhood innocence against adult evils, it seamlessly combines the two. The kids we’re supposed to fear may have been born with deadly powers, but they’re simply children in the process of growing up. They play and explore, they experiment and make mistakes. They demonstrate the capacity for profound kindness and cruelty in equal measures. And when they kill people using telekinesis, it’s fair to wonder if the incidents are as preventable as a child falling while running with scissors.
“The Innocents” is a film about childhood as much as it is about murder, sharing as much DNA with “Boyhood” as it does “The Bad Seed.” Specifically, it’s a film about contemporary childhood and, in a dangerous world that forces kids to grow up faster and faster, whether innocence is even still possible.
The film opens with Ida, a cute little Norwegian girl, digging her fingernails into her disabled older sister in the backseat of their family car. Which sounds a little worse than it is, because her autistic sister Anna isn’t able to feel pain in her arms and legs. So Ida has made a little game out of physically harming her, putting broken glass in Anna’s shoes and stabbing her with twigs. While there is clearly some sadism involved, these actions are rooted in curiosity. She knows her sister won’t feel anything but can’t understand why.
Ida is also undeniably neglected. Despite her parents’ best efforts to show her as much attention as her sister, Anna’s disability renders that impossible. Ida is the younger child who is forced to take on the caretaker role of an older sibling, a dynamic that has clearly aged her.
During her school’s summer holiday, Ida’s friends all go on vacation with their families, leaving her no one to play with. She ends up wandering outside and meeting Ben, a boy her age who can move small objects with his mind. That seems harmless enough until he demonstrates his other favorite hobby: killing cats for fun. They strike up a fast friendship, and Ida begins to learn telekinesis as well. They soon meet Aisha, another little girl who suffers from vitiligo, and the three of them, along with Anna, form a quartet of misfit friends who spend the summer exploring their new powers together.
But the film shifts from “Stand by Me” to “The Shining” when Ben starts to go on a killing spree. Or, more accurately, he starts making other people go on killing sprees for him. Ben can “fetch” people, essentially taking control of their minds and forcing them to do his bidding. And his bidding is usually murder. When Ida, Anna, and Aisha figure out they’re likely to be his next targets, they realize they have to take Ben down through any means necessary, whether that means enlisting their parents or using his own powers against him.
The film prioritizes human drama over horror at nearly every turn, which leads to some superbly nuanced storytelling. But at the same time, it’s tough to watch it without feeling like opportunities were missed. For one, Vogt introduces a delightfully scary plot device in which Ben can make people move by manipulating their perception of reality. Rather than physically control his targets, he convinces them that they’re in an environment that they would find terrifying. When he wants his friend to drop a tree branch, he makes her think it’s a snake. To make someone walk into oncoming traffic, he convinces them that they are being pursued by assailants and have to run away (in his desired direction, of course). Vogt shows us a few wildly entertaining glimpses of this in action, but far too often expects audiences to use their imaginations. As a result, several of the film’s biggest moments feel rather anticlimactic.
That restraint suggests that “The Innocents” could have been a disaster in the hands of mediocre child actors. Fortunately, that is not a concern in the slightest. The highlight of the film is undeniably its cast of actors under the age of 12. Rakel Lenora Fløttum does a sublime job of capturing both Ida’s innocent curiosity and the world weariness of a child with a disabled sibling. As Ben, Sam Ashraf almost convinces us that his multiple murders are little more than mischief, that this very bad egg is just experiencing growing pains. And Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim’s character of Aisha is so adorably delicate and vulnerable that it catches you off guard every time she initiates a devious plan. It’s through these performances that the characters are elevated beyond “evil kid” stock characters and become fully formed human beings.
Because the children in this movie seem so real, it would be malpractice to analyze them without discussing the role their parents play. It’s perfectly reasonable to argue that better parental supervision could have prevented nearly every tragedy that occurs. Yet at the same time, none of the parents in question demonstrate any intentional neglect. Everyone clearly loves their kids and spends as much time with them as they can. But they’re normal adults living in the normal world, with jobs and bills and other kids to deal with. Sometimes, things fall through the cracks. And sometimes, that thing has to be whatever game your daughter is playing outside.
Is it really a parent’s fault that they let their daughter play at the park (in a very safe neighborhood) and she happens to meet a boy who likes to murder cats with his mind? But at the same time, is it really the daughter’s fault that her elementary school education left her unprepared to defuse a series of telekinetic murders? By focusing on the children as human beings, the horror film is able to ask those questions. And its answers often seem like more of an indictment of the world we live in than any individual character, innocent or not.
IFC Midnight will release “The Innocents” in theaters on May 13.