From its earliest moments, Eskil Vogt’s supernatural horror thriller “The Innocents” presents its gravity-defying world seen through the eyes of a child. It opens with an extended shot of Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) half asleep in a car, her face in and out of the dusty sunlight, calm but slightly uneasy in a moment of unexplained transition. The scene can serve to remind viewers of their own sleepy childhood car rides home, when time seemed to stretch around them and conversations in the front seat faded into a background drone. The film – which centers on a group of children growing up in a suburban apartment complex whose parents remain distant characters with unseen and unspecified issues – embraces and explores this kind of backseat unconsciousness while throughout its execution.
The film, which had its March 24 East Coast premiere as part of the Boston Underground Film Festival, establishes its atmosphere of uncertain dread in those early moments, carrying it through to the finale. When the audience later learns that Ida was driving with her family (including her older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who has non-speaking autism) to their new apartment in an isolated building, the unease in the air takes suddenly makes sense, as Ida doesn’t fully understand the implications of her family’s move, but feels her life is changing. The film explores and weaponizes this uncertainty through its supernatural coming-of-age story, which unfolds in an atmosphere both blurred by childhood naivety and heightened by youthful imagination. In places, however, the film oversimplifies real-world issues that deserve more care and sensitivity on screen, particularly the film’s depiction of autism and a supernatural “cure.”
The film’s horror premise is simple but disastrous, like a stripped-down Scandinavian installation by Stephen King set in the woods of Norway rather than Maine. Ida’s first friend in the neighborhood is a serious young boy, Ben (Sam Ashraf), who shows her a party trick he’s been working on: he can “throw” rocks across a clearing without touching them (which means, as the children slowly realize, he is capable of telekinesis.) As he shows Ida the trick in a bright, sunny clearing in the woods, Vogt focuses on close-ups of their delighted reactions and their mundane curiosity, only widening the frame near the end of the scene to reveal Ben moving objects telekinetically. In this way, Vogt shows how children see this startling feat of magic as fun rather than the inevitable source of future trouble that audiences understand. The film follows their realization that Ben and Anna’s eventual relationship might be more dangerous than they thought.
The film is most successful in its visual language, drawing tension and resonance from deft cinematography, editing, and production design. Vogt makes remarkable use of natural light, reminiscent of Ari Aster’s style. The lush forest is splashed with sunlight, shining on the screen while the playground and man-made beach near the apartments are dull and bleached by the sun. The viewer glimpses these two worlds as seen by the children, appreciating the untouched nature of the woods and recoiling from the concrete common spaces. By the end of the film, Vogt has constructed the apartment complex as his own character, opposing the free and light possibility of nature. In dramatic dream sequences, it’s eerie, shrouded in fog and abandoned, but even in everyday moments, interior spaces appear dark and empty, expressing children’s emotional distance from their parents.
As the film progresses, Vogt effectively channels the naïve perspectives of its protagonists while signaling the obvious problems on the horizon and building up the tension. It inspires viewers to hope for the best but expect the worst. The film’s straightforward supernatural arc becomes viscerally touching through carefully placed and choreographed moments of violence or disaster that drew gasps from the audience.
In a memorable first moment, Ben and Ida find a neighborhood cat and drop it off the top of the stairs in their apartment tower. The cat is paralyzed in a fall that turns its stomach and Ben decides to kill it. When he crushes the kitten’s head, the sound reverberates, high-pitched and horrifying, through the theater. When the children discover that Anna is telekinetic in Ben’s presence and that their neighbor Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim) is telepathic, they are thrilled at the possibility that Anna can communicate with them telepathically.
Although Vogt seems to be trying to float a potentially healthy progression for the film in which the children magically band together and communicate in their own way, the emphasis on Anna gaining speaking abilities feels misguided and condescending. It’s eerily reminiscent of the ableist fantasy that people with autism can be “cured” of neurodivergence. Anna’s telepathic speech, and the way it is presented as a solution to her family’s worries, seems to present a negative and inauthentic image of autism as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a widely varying condition that individuals and families can manage, lead a happy life lives with and values as part of its identity.
In interviews on the film, Vogt said he has researched autism and spoken with parents of autistic children, but he does not appear to have consulted with self-advocates or autism groups, as is becoming a encouraged the practice for film and television projects featuring autistic characters. The film does not give Anna’s character significant agency or depth, reflecting the critical that cinematic depictions of non-verbal characters often focus on the people around them and marginalize the autistic person in their own story. The film focuses on the other characters’ reactions to Anna’s autism, including her sister’s apparent resentment and even violence (such as when she puts broken glass in Anna’s shoes), but rarely puts it back. questions or challenges these behaviors and instead highlights how Anna could change, presenting a troubling message around autism, neurodivergence and its manageability.
Despite this significant issue, the horror-thriller delivers an engaging, vivid and intense final act, depicting the children’s last stand against a supernatural force that threatens their lives and their families. The final effect is enhanced by the film’s excellent sound design, which remains surprisingly clear and deliberate; the music is light and sparse, all the floating strings breaking into thundering echoes. Moments of violence ring out with awful clarity, from the splash of water to the thud of a brick. Through these moments, Vogt stitches together gripping and atmospheric moments of realization and confrontation between the children, ending the nightmarish saga in a terrifying final sequence with stunning visual effects. In the end, however, Vogt was working with a supernatural premise simple enough to feel potentially underwhelming, his deliberate and precise directing approach resulted in a gripping work of daylight horror.
—Editor Harper R. Oreck can be reached at [email protected]