Netflix’s ‘The Innocents’ Blends Poignant Young Adult Drama With Supernatural Suspense
Netflix’s “The Innocents” is a young adult drama that takes its audience seriously. In season one supernatural powers thrust two teens into a major crisis, yet the more we watch, the more it dawns that here is a special show where the fantastical elements take a back seat to the characters. This is a mystery thriller that is actually about the plight of growing up. It’s the latest British acquisition by Netflix, which is scooping up content from major international production hubs. India’s “Sacred Games” and Germany’s “Babylon Berlin” delivered exhilarating noirs earlier this year. But with “The Innocents” Netflix again proves it is developing a keen sense for young adult content both entertaining and artful.
June (Sorcha Groundsell) and Harry (Percelle Ascott) are a couple on the run in northern England. The two classmates have made the decision to hit the road after June’s father, John (Sam Hazeldine), hints at sending her away to Scotland. John’s an intimidating sort, who wants to keep June extremely protected for some reason. Her brother Ryan (Arthur Hughes) is more supportive and looks the other way when she escapes from their house. But the early bliss of June and Harry’s escape is soon interrupted when two men, Steiner (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson) and Alf (Trond Fausa), attempt to kidnap June. During the struggle to get away, June somehow manages to physically shift into the body of Steiner. For Harry it is a major shock of course, to realize his girlfriend has some kind of strange powers. In distant Norway a man named Halvorson (Guy Pearce) is running tests on older women who seem to share June’s powers. The two teen lovers will soon become aware of just how important June is to a lot of people interested in her abilities.
To spoil more of “The Innocents” is to ruin its effect. The narrative becomes absorbing because it doesn’t give everything away, and each episode works like one more chapter revealing just a little more. Concepts such as shape-shifting beings, secret labs and dark family histories are nothing new, particularly in the world of episodic TV, but “The Innocents” becomes more engaging because this is all decoration for the deeper themes. Youth and its struggles with identity, the search for independence, are the real heart and soul here. June and Harry are not written like the typical, comic book heroes. They feel like two young people caught in extraordinary circumstances they can barely comprehend. When June first shifts into Steiner (the first of many such shifts during the season), what she expresses is sheer frustration and terror, as does Harry. If this had been an American show like “Legion,” the human element might be pushed aside for flashy special effects and formula plotting involving some epic villain. But in “The Innocents” there is the feeling that if such situations were possible, people would react more in this way. June in her different states prefers to hide and crouch in a hotel bathtub, and Harry is himself nervous and confused, as you would expect someone to be when their girlfriend can switch faces and genders. In another episode the couple make friends with an ecstasy dealer in London, who introduces them to the local rave scene. Amid the pounding music and lights a moment of apparent bliss turns into terror when June shifts with another girl. Moments like this are like sharp metaphors for how when you’re young, your faults always seem to crop up at the wrong moment.
In essence “The Innocents” is a love story, but it respects its young adult characters enough to avoid recycled cheesiness. June and Harry glow with inexperience, and their love scenes have a simple, endearing tenderness. One of their best scenes together takes place while doing the laundry, and they seem to be gazing at each other shirtless for the first time. They begin to carefully touch and share a kiss, but with the hesitancy mixed with exuberance of real life. Of course they get interrupted by an adult. The relationship also has the special quality of feeling like a true friendship, which is rare when teenage characters tend to be written so shallow.
Lest we forget, “The Innocents” is also a thriller. What is the truth about June’s powers? What’s the Guy Pierce character up to in that Norwegian farm with the women who function as test subjects? The first three episodes keep it all tightly sealed, and it is near the seventh that finally some answers become more focused. It is the storyline about the shifting that feels more formulaic than the rest of the show, mostly because this kind of plot device always leads to the same places (June’s mother possibly having passed on the shifting powers to her at birth, etc.). The other key storyline involves John and Ryan, who go off to find June and become entangled in the wider plot, as they also grapple with their own shaky relationship. What makes the story threads more immersive is the show’s sense of atmosphere. Shot with lush landscapes draped in mist and rain, the show has the atmosphere of classics like “The X-Files,” conjuring a sense of dread and mystery. There’s little sunlight in this show and many vast, open fields leading into dark forests.
“The Innocents” succeeds mainly in creating believable characters who make us care more for their human experiences than for their supernatural hassles. Like most good young adult fiction, it uses fantasy to convey truths about growing up. It understands that experiences like a first kiss or running away already have a supernatural feeling on their own.
“The Innocents” season one premieres Aug. 24 on Netflix.