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► The Innocents is in UK cinemas and on streaming platforms from 20 May.

The Innocents begins with an act of casual, childish cruelty. Woken by the sounds of her older, severely autistic sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) in the back of the family car, Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) pinches her sister’s leg hard (after checking that their parents are not looking). Later, having arrived at their new apartment, Ida wilfully treads a worm underfoot in the mud by the housing complex’s lake, before seeing young Ben (Sam Ashraf ) opposite. Brought together by mutual loneliness and exclusion from the games of other local children, Ida and Ben become playmates, cementing their bond by attacking an ant hill together. It is only when the target of their cruel games shifts to a cat and Ben takes things too far that Ida will distance herself from him.

Innocence here is relative, and not guaranteed by a tender age. If the initially uncommunicative Anna, and her new friend, the sweet-natured, sensitive little Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), are at one end of the spectrum, then angry, “mean” Ben – unloved at home and bullied outside – is at the opposite end, and already exhibits emerging psychopathic tendencies. Ida falls somewhere in between these extremes. She is at first drawn to Ben’s waywardness, but her furtiveness when pinching Anna suggests that she has at least some sense of right and wrong, and her guilty contrition when she subsequently learns of Anna’s real (if hidden) pain shows her essential empathy – as does her growing horror at Ben’s ever more dangerous and destructive behaviour.

Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim as Aisha in The Innocents

In following these four children as they play and fight, sometimes together, sometimes apart, over a long eventful summer, writer- director Eskil Vogt, perhaps best known for being Joachim Trier’s regular co-writer, here offers, with honesty and not a little discomfort, a cinematic sandpit in which the moral development (or otherwise) of young children can be staged. Vogt is in no way wide-eyed when it comes to children’s capacity for sadism and malice, and here, as with his screenplay for Trier’s Thelma (2017), he amplifies the impact of these otherwise realist rites of passage with a supernatural element. For, like the young characters in Josh Trank’s Chronicle (2012) and David Yarovesky’s Brightburn (2019), these four have nascent superpowers – telekinesis and telepathy which grow in efficacy when the children come together, and which can be used for good or ill.

Here the furnishings of genre are used to highlight and intensify aspects of the children that were already there. Forming a close mental link with Aisha, Anna starts speaking again for the first time since she was four and expressing her locked-in feelings. Much as he once owned a slingshot (“I fired it at people I didn’t like,” he tells Ida, “at people I think are mean”), Ben now uses new, less conventional weapons to lash out at others from a distance. Having met Aisha and Anna, he is able to move and break remote objects with ever greater force and accuracy, while also learning to possess other people from afar.

Rakel Lenora Fløttum as Anna and Sam Ashraf as Ben in The Innocents

As the least marginalised of her playmates – white unlike Aisha and Ben, and neurotypical unlike her sister – Ida alone appears, at least at first, to have no unnatural abilities, though by the end it will be implied that most if not all children are secretly empowered and have a collective strength at odds with their individual vulnerability.

It is impossible for a film to use the title The Innocents without evoking Jack Clayton’s 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898). Though Vogt’s film is no ghost story, two things link it to the earlier film: Clayton’s key image of the apparition of a woman standing and staring on the other side of a lake is here several times reprised and reconfigured, as characters stand facing one another from opposite banks.

The harrowing imperilment of children is also carried over, but here without the adult supervision even of an unhinged governess. “We can take care of it – together,” Aisha says of the threat that Ben poses to them (and which they cannot explain to grown-ups). But in their confrontation with bullying malevolence, these pre-teens must appropriate the murderous methods of their antagonist. Vogt’s film asks whether, after such loss of innocence, it is ever really possible simply to go back and wipe the slate clean.

Sight and Sound September 2022

In this issue: Quentin Tarantino on tape, the best film podcasts, Baz Luhrmann on Elvis, Warren Ellis on composing for film and Panah Panahi on Hit the Road. Plus: Black Film Bulletin, James Caan, Georges Méliès and more.

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