“Mama? What do you do when someone’s mean?”
The Innocents was directed by Eskil Vogt, and released in 2021. It was the first feature film of the 2022 sci-fi-london.com festival. It’s a Norwegian/Finnish film.
In the beginning of the film, a family have moved to a new area in what I believe is rural Norway. The family is made up of a mother and father (you never learn what their names are) and their two children Ida and Anna. Anna is the eldest of the two and is a non-verbal autistic child, probably early teens, and her younger sister is Ida. It’s clear from the start that Ida has an almost sadistic quality to her personality, as she will often pinch Anna to try to get a response from her but Anna, of course, cannot talk. When they move in it’s the summer so the block they live in is very quiet with very few families present, and they grapple with living in this new area. One of the first scenes is where Ida stands by the bank of a small lake and it is across the water that she sees a young boy, who she will later come to learn is Ben.
Ida’s mother encourages her to go play in the local area and she does so. She formally meets Ben, who is similarly a loner and pretty soon they are spending many days together playing. Soon Ida learns that Ben has some sort of magic ability to move things with his mind which he demonstrates to Ida. They seem to have a similar sadism and there is a traumatising scene where they drop a kitten down a stairwell in glee (Ben uses it as practice for his abilities) but when Ida realises the kitten is actually hurt and sees Ben crush its skull, she knows that they have gone to far and she begins to distance herself from him.
One day, Ida’s mother asks her to take Anna with her out to play. Anna then befriends a girl called Aisha who also appears to have a special ability which allows her to connect with Anna. Aisha is able to hear what Anna is saying in her mind and feel what she’s feeling, and soon she is even able to assist Anna in talking. There’s a couple scenes where Aisha mouths words and Anna is then able to say them herself which is revealed eventually to Ida and Anna’s parents (though they are unaware that mystical powers have anything to do with why this has happened). Aisha, Anna, Ida and Ben then spend time together; I’m guessing all is forgiven between Ida and Ben’s earlier kitten episode. However there is a clash when Ben becomes angry and lashes out. Anna squares up to Ben in that moment, as he threatens to use his powers to hurt Aisha, and it is clear that Anna bestows similar powers to Ben. The clash causes a ripple forcing a tree to fall and part of it goes into Anna’s leg. Ben runs off, and Ida/Aisha take Anna home. Anna’s mother is angry at Ida for not saying how this happened and blames her for not having looked after her properly (which she later apologises about).
We see snapshots of Ben’s life behind the scenes with his mother. It seems like his mother is quite abusive towards him. At one point he snaps, and while his mother is boiling a pot of water, we see him use his powers to pour the boiling pot of water onto his mum and smash the pot over her head. She slowly dies on the kitchen floor while he just sort of looks on. Later we see moments of regret in Ben but overall, he appears to be quite nonchalant about the whole ordeal.
Tension is obviously building, and Ben is becoming obviously progressively more dangerous. We see him break the leg of another child, and later take over the body of an adult man to murder another young boy from the block. Aisha and Anna tell Ida that they have to stop Ben, that he is out of control and they want her help but Ida refuses. Before they can, Ben takes over the body of Aisha’s mother and forces her to violently stab Aisha to death. Without Aisha, Anna goes back to being non-verbal. In her frustration and concern now that Aisha/Anna can no longer protect them, and worrying that Ben will be coming for them, Ida decides that she’s going to take matters into her own hands and lures Ben to an overpass where she pushes him off the side. She is seen by an adult and bolts. Ben, unhurt, then pursues her and in the process Ida is hit by a car and breaks her leg.
The latter section of the film is the aftermath. Ida returns from hospital but the threat of Ben is still very real. Summer rolls over, and families have returned from their holidays by this point so the streets are bubbling with families. Anna leaves the flat to finally confront Ben, and Ida pursues with her cast and crutches (before eventually tearing at it to allow her to get to her sister). She finds Anna by the bank of the small lake in the playground area and holds Anna’s hand in a sort of united front against Ben (the proximity to the lake is reminiscent of the early scene, where Ida first sees Ben). There is a silent and tense stare-down and you can see ripples forming on the surface of the water. Ben then stumbles backwards to this swing set, looking wildly around the block; it appears that other children have abilities too and they are closely watching Ben. There is a crescendo of sound until finally Ben slumps in the seat of a swing, presumably murdered by Anna and co. And then everyone goes back to their normal activities and the camera pans away.
So, I think the first thing to acknowledge is that there is something problematic about this film, in that the autistic character, Anna, was actually played by a neuro-typical (not autistic) actress. This comes up so much in film. I do think she acted fantastically and this is not a gripe at the actress at all, but the disabled community often call for disabled characters to be played by disabled actors. The reason for this is non-disabled actors often act those characters in over-the-top ways that can be very harmful to disabled people. Disabled actors are also more likely to reflect autistic traits in a way where it will be treated with respect, and not make a caricature out of autistic/disabled people.. Not to mention that representation is so important. There are plenty roles of neuro-typical, able-bodied characters out there… That’s not to say that a non-disabled person can’t treat a role like this with respect, and to be fair to Alva Brynsmo Ramstad she honestly played this character so so well, but I do think that it’s important to acknowledge this and advocate for authentic representation.
Really loved that Aisha’s character was played by Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, which is a young actess with vitiligo, a condition which is not really represented in film.
The film was held up basically by four children, ranging from like 8 years old to <16. I think often when you see child actors in film, they overact in a way that doesn’t seem believable but with this film, I was so taken by these kids. They act with a certain gravitas that only comes with much older actors, yet they were totally believable and really held my attention in a way that I would not have expected from child actors. So that just goes to show how capable these actors and actresses were.
I really liked that there were adults in this film but it was almost like they were absent, you know? I think that was done intentionally to put real focus on these children, and that if the adults would have taken more of a front stage approach, the dynamic would have shifted somewhat. Like you would have automatically seen them in more of a Parent-Child dynamic which would have taken away the strength and self reliance of those characters. There definitely were moments of that… like where Ida and her mother embrace close to the end of the film… Thinking about it, I think that’s probably how they did that. There were very few scenes in the film where adults and children had physical closeness, like you would expect in a Parent-Child dynamic, so I think that lended itself to this approach to make the children the focal point. Most of the times where the adults came into contact with the kids, it was shrouded in tragedy (until the summer families returned and then there were lots of kiddos and parents and something shifted in that part of the film). The adults weren’t totally gone, and you got to see a little bit of their own worries in that world, but they definitely took a back seat to the kiddos.
I guess another criticism I would have of this film is their choice of the actor who plays Ben being the baddie. Like yes, he is a boy and it’s great that they’re putting a focus firstly on girls and disabled characters as the heroines in this film, but he is a Person of Colour… AND not only that but he is a darker skin toned POC, as with his mother who was physically abusive to his character. Aisha was also a POC but had lighter skin. Her mother had darker skin but also inevitably murders Aisha. Now you may not understand why that’s a problem, but from what I understand, People of Colour routinely either don’t see themselves in film or when they do see themselves they are the aggressors, or the terrorists, or a monster, something or someone to be frightened about, or a caricature of person. So their choices of who played what, and what they ended up doing and how they were portrayed as the story unfolded didn’t sit all that well with me, despite thinking that the actors in those roles were damn good at their job.
I like that you never really know why these children have these powers and the characters approach it in a way that’s just so very childlike. I guess I’m used to Marvel or DC films where someone discovers they have a new power, then they do a montage where they are learning about their power and showing it off to people or trying to hide it. However in this film, it’s approached in such a matter-of-fact sort of way where the origin isn’t a focus. It’s just instantly accepted that there is something about this place that means some children have special abilities. It’s a very refreshing approach.
I think it is so important that Anna is the one who ends up being the saviour in this film, with her being a disabled character, and I like that even though early on it seems like Anna can only really take on Ben with Aisha’s help, later it turns out she had strength all along and that she didn’t need Aisha at all to defeat Ben. Although I wonder if the onlookers had any part to play. I suspect not because you see those ripples coming off of Anna and hitting the lake so I think that power is genuinely being generated just by her.
And I wonder what happened in the aftermath, like what happened when they discovered Ben’s mother’s body? And why did did the adults have zero awareness that the kiddos in this block were a little unusual and why that might be and why all these weird tragedies were spontaneously happening at the same time? So mysterious.
So overall, there’s a lot to think about with this film. I was say it was likely my favourite film of the festival and it blew me away. Acted well. Great concept. Well written. Sometimes I thought maybe it might be too slow because it was very Nordic, in that slow paced, quiet sort of way, but I think on balance none of that took anything away from the film. It actually allowed it to breathe and I felt like I was so invested in the film in those moments of stillness. Like I said in another blog, I was really stoked to see that this film is now streaming, and I wish the film the greatest success.