2022, NR, 118 min. Directed by Eskil Vogt. Starring Rakel Lenora Fløttum, Alva Brynsmo Ramstad, Sam Ashraf, Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim, Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Morten Svartveit.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Aug. 26, 2022
This week, some Helen Lovejoy "won't someone think of the children?" type decided to become Twitter's lead character of the day by bemoaning millennials who don't become parents. Why, he whined, would you possibly not want to have kids? Well, after watching Norwegian slow-burn horror The Innocents, the answer is clearly "to avoid being murdered by your superpowered bratlings."
It does seem that, over the last few years, there's been a substrand of Norwegian cinema reappraising the inherent menace of the superhero movie – indeed, of specific plotlines and tropes. In 2017, Joachim Trier took a grounded look at the terror a Phoenix-esque force would inflict in Thelma, while André Øvredal's 2020 mythological thriller Mortal was a clear attempt to wrest Thor back from the clutches of Hollywood. Now Blind director, longtime Trier collaborator, and (far from coincidentally) Thelma writer Eskil Vogt seemingly deconstructs The New Mutants and its preadults with near-divine powers. The 2020 Fox adaptation of the Marvel comic missed the point by shoving them into a bad draft of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors rather than examining the inherent darkness of the comics: that a developing brain combined with godlike powers is a recipe for pure disaster.
The quartet of small gods in Vogt's Norwegian suburb are interlinked through a pool of interacting powers: ESP, telekinesis, and mind control. Bonded together as a little gang, they're an unlikely Fantastic Four. Anna (Ramstad) is quietly seething that she's forced to look after her developmentally challenged elder sister (Fløttum), and falls in with Ben (Ashraf), a mean and lonely boy with a violent streak. The inherent hope is that his influence will be offset by Aisha (Asheim), who "hears" people even when they're nowhere around.
Vogt brings out the ugliness of childhood (the shallow empathy, the lashing out, the selfishness, the curiosity about the disgusting) and ramps it up with endless malice that slowly builds to horrific action. It's the anti-jump scare, with a sickening catharsis that what you think is coming does, indeed, come to pass. Moreover, he remembers that kids will always keep adults at arm's length, especially when it comes to hiding their little crimes, and The Innocents always keeps the kids at the center. The only real disappointment is that it falls back on what's becoming the dominant style in Scandinavian horror: handheld, in a slightly bleached-out daytime. That's a shame considering that it's Sturla Brandth Grøvlen behind the lens, and for both his one-shot masterpiece Victoria and black-and-white architectural study Last and First Men his cinematography was revelatory. Here it at least gives a grounded background that makes the ensuing battle between pint-sized good and miniature malevolence both epic in threat and intimate in delivery.