Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
When did films with teenage leads become so woefully simplistic and nonsensical? Innocence falls into the excessive batch of supernatural young adult films that doesn’t develop characters, fails to tell a consistent narrative, and underutilizes talented actors in supporting roles. The film opens with a tragedy as most of these stories do, with Beckett Warner (Sophie Curtis) spending time with her mother and father on the beach. While surfing, her mother goes underneath a wave and never comes back. A family gathering quickly turns into a mournful afternoon. To escape the tragedy, her father, Miles (Linus Roache), and Beckett move to Riverdale and she becomes enrolled in the exclusive Hamilton Preparatory School. Here, the colors of the film shift to dark, ominous blacks and grays, signifying that something is wrong with Beckett’s developing education.
When moving, she runs into Tobey Crawford (Graham Phillips), a young man with the face of a lost puppy and the emotional range of a brick wall. Tobey and Beckett fall in love because…well, that kind of thing doesn’t need an explanation, does it? The characters just need to meet cute, which in this case involves Beckett encountering some strange ghost in a closet before turning around to see Tobey. Outside of that romance, though, Beckett begins to feel exhausted and sickly in the school, leading to a meeting with the nurse, Pamela (Kelly Reilly). She wants to help and prescribes Beckett some pills, and also decides to start dating Beckett’s father because he’s lonely and the story needs conflict. Characters join in loving embraces as if they are robotic beings with no semblance of emotion. The story demands that since it underlies the whole “something is really wrong with this place” vibe. Explanations are pushed to the side in the wake of shock value and completely incidental discoveries.
My favorite discovery probably lies in Beckett entering a house that was seemingly left unlocked, only to trip over a vacuum and hit against a mirror. In doing so, a picture falls out from behind the mirror that explains everything. Whenever I have a secret and I want to hide it from people, I usually tuck it away behind a tangible object that needs a simple nudge to expose the whole plan. Innocence uses many of these devices to tell the story as quickly and inanely as possible. Another grating element that the film employs is random jump scares; horror needs to be built on atmosphere, tension, characters, and post-production content like editing and sound design. What the audience sees here, however, are jarring, aggressive cuts to grayed-out girls that seem to be haunting the school grounds. How is it scary when it’s just meant to jolt the viewer?
The acting from the two young leads is woefully bad, with Curtis and Phillips attempting to make material out of their characters when there’s simply nothing within the film. These characters have no single defining characteristics. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Beckett’s mom died and she’s seeing ghosts. Tobey is supposed to look cute to please teenage girls that may see the film. It’s also striking how primitive the storytelling becomes in the final half hour, relying on ridiculous supernatural lore that never makes sense with the main narrative. Kelly Reilly, a terrific supporting actress that has shined in films like Flight and Calvary, is wasted here as a mysterious woman that has secrets but never feels like a tangible creation on screen. I suppose that’s my biggest problem with the film. Director Hilary Brougher shows promise in the film’s opening moments with utilizing screen space, but her film falls apart under the emptiness of its content. There’s nothing behind the characters, their actions, the plot, or the setting. Innocence cannot draw the audience in because it doesn’t have a story to tell.
Grade: ★ (out of 5)