“The Innocents” may share a title — and even some thematic fragments — with Jack Clayton’s 1961 ghost story, but its vibe is ultimately more superheroic than spectral. There’s no hint of either characteristic, though, in the movie’s gorgeous opening shot of an angelically sleeping child, the brush of eyelashes on freckled skin glowing in summer sunlight. The child is 9-year-old Ida (Rakel Lenora Flottum), and when she wakes and carefully pinches the thigh of her autistic, nonverbal sister, Anna (played by the neurotypical actor Alva Brynsmo Ramstad), we know Ida is no angel.
Yet “The Innocents,” written and directed by Eskil Vogt (probably best known for his collaborations with Joachim Trier), isn’t concerned with adjudicating right and wrong. Rather, this uncannily atmospheric movie immerses us in a childhood world where choices between cruelty and kindness, empathy and hostility must be learned and negotiated. Set in a large Norwegian housing complex, where towering apartment blocks huddle before an encroaching forest, the story pulls Ida and Anna toward two other children: Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), sweet and gentle, and the slightly older Ben (Sam Ashraf), moody and intense. Both live with single mothers; but while Aisha’s is lovingly attentive, Ben’s is neglectful, unaware that her bullied son is becoming dangerously angry. And that he has paranormal gifts.
Those aptitudes — telepathy, telekinesis and a terrifying ability to control minds — are amplified when Ben is around the other children, who begin to share some of them. Thoughts move unhindered from one brain to another, and an injury to one child causes another to bleed. At first, Ben’s tricks with rocks and bottle caps seem innocent enough, no more worrying than Ida’s double-jointed elbows; but when, in a series of increasingly horrifying scenes, his playfulness lurches into sadism, Ida is the first to recognize that they may all be in danger.
Skillfully merging menace and sweetness (when Anna begins to speak, her parents’ delight is incredibly touching), “The Innocents” constructs a superbly eerie moral landscape, one that the children (all of whom are fantastic) must learn to navigate. Keeping the light bright and the camera mostly at child height, the cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen fills his sunny, soaring final shot with chilly foreboding. Ida and Anna, knowing no adult can help them, can only try to save themselves.
Not rated. In Norwegian, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.