The Innocents, the second directorial outing for Joachim Trier's regular co-writer Eskil Vogt, forms a bracingly eerie challenge to our expectations around the portrayal of children on screen. As with Vogt and Trier's 2017 collaboration Thelma, the new film starts out in a broadly realist mode, following nine-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Fløttum) as she explores the social housing block to which her family has just relocated, and starts to make new friends. But then matters take a turn for the uncanny, as it becomes clear that several of these new friends have special powers; the pitch might have been the Dardennes do Scanners or Village of the Damned. Falling under the ambiguous influence of telekinetic neighbour Benjamin (Sam Ashraf), Ida begins to act out in a most disturbing way, possibly in a bid to pull focus from a sister with learning difficulties who needs extra care: she deposits broken glass in her sibling's trainers, and does worse things still to a missing cat. After building her a friend group via such communal atrocities, Vogt sets them turning against one another almost arbitrarily, as kids do; and our primary concern, looking on from behind the sofa, is whether this wave of tweenie cruelty can be confined to the adventure playground, or whether the wider world is somehow in grave danger.
To work, the premise needed an exceptionally sensitive director of children, a creative ready and willing to purge his performers of any cuteness while reassuring their keepers that no harm could come of this process. The kids here don't act like kids in a conventional horror movie so much as kids in your immediate vicinity, and that's why they're so terrifying almost from the off: they're ultra-credible threats. Vogt locates in them a giggly, conspiratorial energy, and halfway through you realise he's fashioned an entire film out of a particular feeling: the one you get when you walk in on your little darlings and immediately sense they've been up to no good. The uncertainty here lies in not knowing to what end this energy is being gathered and redirected; it isn't stilled any by the midfilm domestic incident that will seem as horrific to your adult self as the opening sequences of Casualty and certain public information films did when you were younger. Vogt proves a limber shotmaker: after an early hat tip to the British film of the same name (a longshot of a sketchy figure on the other side of a body of water, reprised amid the finale), he sets the experienced cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen out on several dreamy, free-floating Steadicam tours of their unnervingly sunny, whitewashed location. And he may be more agile yet in post-production. With editor Jens Christian Fodstad, he uses montage to tether psychic bonds between youngsters in four or five different flats, and oversees one cut so icily unforgiving it might cause even Michael Haneke to gulp: a scene that ends with one character screaming for an ambulance is juxtaposed with a punishingly long shot of the tower blocks going entirely untroubled by the emergency services. The suffering persists.
What can it all mean? The Innocents can't really be a Greta Thunberg-era parable about one generation rising up to give their complacent elders the kicking they deserve, because that would require more authorial relish than the generally cool-blooded Vogt lets slip, some sense the grown-ups deserve their fate, which these characters don't. (In a reversal of generic and societal norms, it's the gathered parents who may actually be the innocents of the title, clueless to the murderous turf war being waged around them, in the air and beneath their feet.) What else can it be, then? A We Need to Talk About Kevin-like expression of paedophobia from a creative who doesn't want kids and can't see any good coming from anybody else having kids? Maybe. It seems more likely to me that this is just a brilliant concept pushed skilfully and inexorably towards an extreme, a nasty little tale of the unexpected told by a cineaste who's had quite enough acclaim for his nice, well-behaved arthouse pictures over the past decade and now wants nothing more than to unsettle his audience, or fuck us up. But - boy - does The Innocents unsettle the audience and fuck us up. No film has more completely dramatised the sentiment - and the suspicion - behind that hall-of-fame Half Man Half Biscuit lyric "Is your child hyperactive/Or is he, perhaps, a twat?"
The Innocents is now playing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and Prime Video.