After moving to a new home—a cluster of apartment towers surrounded by forests, quieter than usual thanks to the summer holidays—bored young Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) welcomes friendship with a similarly aged neighbor, Ben (Sam Ashraf). But The Innocents, a brutal yet elegant investigation into the extremes of psychopathy and empathy, is hardly your typical coming-of-age film.
Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt (a recent Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee for co-writing The Worst Person in the World), The Innocents benefits enormously from the talented kids in its cast, who are believably natural even as the circumstances around them become more and more fantastical. They seem like real children, and that’s a big part of what makes the movie so disturbing. From the start we’re a little iffy about Ida; she stomps on worms, spits off balconies, and exhibits casual cruelty toward her older sister, Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), who’s autistic and nonverbal. But she’s thrilled—with a genuine, high-beam smile bubbling forth—when she sees Ben demonstrate his unusual talent: he can move objects with his mind.
Honestly, it is freaking cool, and The Innocents frames the introduction of Ben’s powers so nonchalantly you almost wonder if you saw what you thought you saw. You did! And Ben seems like a friendly enough boy who is at least more fun to hang out with than Anna... until Ida sees what Ben is capable of even without using his “magic trick” (it involves a pet cat, and it’s horrible), and you definitely begin to worry about where all this is going.
The Innocents could position itself as a heavy indictment of the parents in this scenario, but it doesn’t shove itself into that corner. Everyone’s home life is less than ideal—Ida’s parents are mostly focused on Anna, who requires round-the-clock minding; Ben’s mother regularly snaps at him; and the fourth child in the group, Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), who has her own secret talents, hears her mother sobbing at night for unknown reasons. But mostly it seems like the parents are busy with their own lives, definitely to a fault but not exactly neglectful. The kids are outside just having fun and playing, they all seem to agree. What could go wrong? Of all the parents, Anna and Ida’s mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) is the most involved; the sisters are the only kids with two parents, their apartment is bigger and brighter than the others we see, and they have more of a family structure rather than a scrounging-for-junk-food-at-dinnertime kind of life. Even still, she’s also the kind of mom who says “Tell me the truth, I won’t get mad,” and then gets mad anyway.
Needless to say, the kids don’t reveal their gifts to anyone outside their group, and that most certainly includes parents. At first, they delight in sharing their gifts—Aisha, it turns out, is a telepath who can communicate psychically with Ben, but even more remarkably has a link with Anna that unlocks something behind the girl’s wide, vacant eyes. But things turn dark quickly when the sensitive Ben, who’s basically a mini-Carrie, gives in to his malevolent instincts with sickening results.
The wondrous thing about The Innocents, a spooky-kid movie that manages to make the genre feel fresh while also making you feel awful about the world, is how low-key it is, even when the stakes are sky-high. The intimate drama among the children feels like it could really be happening, barely hidden from the notice of any adults, though it’s not like any adults could intervene; it’s made abundantly clear the kids have all the real power here. Enmeshed in their secret, supernatural world where the rules of reality don’t apply, it’s up to them to work out their problems—even the literally life-and-death ones—among themselves. It’s lonely and terrifying, and even beyond the larger good vs. evil arc of the film, its smaller moments of nastiness will stick with you long after the movie ends.
The Innocents arrives in select theaters and everywhere you rent movies today.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.