Not the 1961 adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, but a 2021 Norwegian film (De uskyldige), which I was drawn to for its bleakly realistic take on a theme I’ve written about in Mewsings before: psychic kids.
The Innocents focuses on Ida, a girl of about eight or nine, whose parents move to a new flat in the sort of complex of apartments I last saw on film in Let the Right One In (which would make an excellent Nordic-supernatural-kids double-bill with this film). Ida’s older sister Anna is profoundly autistic, so cut off from the world that she doesn’t respond when Ida viciously (and casually) pinches her leg. Ida befriends another loner at the apartment complex, Ben, a boy of her own age who shows off a skill he’s been practising: if Ida drops a bottle cap in front on him, he can fling it to the side with his mind. Ida’s impressed; Ben is equally impressed by Ida’s ability to bend her arms slightly backwards. He then shows her a cat he’s befriended, and suggests they take it up several flights of steps and drop it, to see what happens.
Amazingly enough, there’s another child with a mild psychic ability in the same apartment complex. The slightly-younger Aisha can hear some people’s thoughts and talk back to them with her mind. She can’t hear Ida (Ida has, it seems, no psychic ability), but can hear the autistic Anna. More crucially, Anna can hear her, even when they’re apart, and it’s through Aisha that Anna is encouraged to say her first words.
The kids realise their powers get stronger when they’re together. They of course use them to play games, with Ida whispering a word into Anna’s ear and Aisha or Ben “hearing” it the next floor up. But things start to take a darker turn with the already-troubled Ben. Bullied not just by the local older lads but also his own mother, Ben discovers he can make people do things. He gets revenge on a teenage boy who taunted him by controlling a much older man. Then he plays with getting his own back on his mother (who has clearly beaten him — we see unexplained bruises on his body), and, childlike, goes way too far, but perhaps doesn’t care, or can’t admit he does. The children’s powers are all meshed together, though, and an injury to one — or caused by one — can be felt or perceived by the others. Aisha doesn’t like what Ben’s doing, but Ben doesn’t like being told what to do. A confrontation is brewing.
The Innocents is clearly a world apart from that archetypal “psychic kids” film, Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain (1975). There, apart from some mild peril at the end, the film is mostly about what fun it would be to have psychic powers. Here, it’s about how dangerous psychic powers might be in kids who are neglected or ignored or mistreated enough that they can take a childish pleasure in inflicting pain, or in taking an instant and over-the-top retribution just because they can.
But The Innocents does have a more positive side. Though I’ve seen it described (bizarrely, I think) as a superhero film — presumably, just because there are “super powers” involved — what it most reminded me of was Theodore Sturgeon’s classic novel More Than Human (1953), in which a group of misfits who, individually, would be regarded as physically or mentally disabled, together meld into a super-powered example of the next step in human evolution, “homo gestalt”. In The Innocents, it’s through coming together that these kids’ powers develop.
Their powers aren’t explained at all. Ben’s having worked on the ability to fling bottle tops with his mind just seems to be the product of a lonely boy’s application, driven perhaps by a determination borne of a clearly unhappy home life. It’s the coming together of Ben, Aisha and Anna that flips things from flinging bottle tops to mind control and murder. But The Innocents gets past any accusation that this is a major coincidence — three kids with psychic powers, however mild, happening to come together in the same apartment complex — by a hint, at the end, that psychic abilities aren’t all that rare, they’re just usually too mild (or left un-amplified by isolation) to get noticed. (And presumably such abilities either die out in adulthood, or these kids are that tiny step forward in evolution, in the manner of mutants and Tomorrow People everywhere).
The Innocents does have some scenes which are really hard to watch (particularly involving the poor cat), but overall it’s a low-key, even muted film, with a lot of quiet but meaningful moments that build the tension — which is as much emotional as supernatural, particularly when it comes to seeing how far Ida will side with the increasingly vindictive Ben. Not a casual watch at all, nor perhaps as affecting as Let the Right One In, but a worthwhile slice of subtle Nordic supernatural.