While I’ve never experienced life as a teenage girl, I’ve heard tell it’s not easy. In addition to the general awkwardness of puberty and adolescence, the societal problems such as bullying, body image disorders, and sexual objectification that young girls encounter on a daily basis have made the rounds in most forums of public debate. While our culture tends to imagine teenage girls as existing in their own separate worlds, the influence of adults as role models, arbiters, or propagators in the destructive cycle of teenage female trauma rarely enters the picture. Hilary Brougher’s Innocence attempts to examine this idea, albeit in a somewhat outmoded and incomplete way.
The film opens with the loss of a mother, as Beckett Warner (Sophie Curtis) watches her mom disappear in the waves while surfing on the type of gray East Coast beach where no one would ever try to surf. Although it is a bizarre way to open the film — a scene selection not aided by Brougher’s slow-paced, lo-fi filming and lack of any real explanation — it sets the theme of Beckett’s need for a new female figure on her journey to womanhood. When she moves to New York and begins at an elite Manhattan all-girls prep school, Beckett finds herself surrounded by women who all seem impossibly thin and beautiful. The most notable of these sultry ladies is Pamela (Kelly Reilly), the school nurse, who takes an immediate interest in Beckett and Beckett’s newly single father (Linus Roache). After a student commits suicide in front of Beckett, she begins to have ghostly visions that lead her to believe all is not right at this school (well, technically she had the visions before this, but the film basically ignores the initial jump scare “dead teen girl ghost in the closet” shot). Needless to say, Beckett’s hypothesis is correct, and those impossibly thin and beautiful women who involve themselves in the school do harbor a deadly secret.
Brougher is smart to cast actors who look more like awkward teenagers than well groomed twenty-somethings, as the girls’ appearances create a nice contrast to the lithe women portraying the adults. Watching these somewhat insecure girls interact with confident older women instantly makes clear why teenagers struggle to make themselves look older. There is a kind of power — in this case a literal, supernatural one — to the mature women’s beauty and sensuality. While the film also acknowledges that aging women envy the youth of teenage girls, it only does so in an almost too literal sense. Brougher could have explored the interplay between the two groups through a lighter handling of the film’s central metaphor. Innocence turns the constructed Electra complex between Beckett, Pamela and Beckett’s father into a potentially interesting triangle, but never manages to shape it into anything more than a surface of psycho-sexual tension.
Ultimately, Brougher’s direction feels unsteady, creating the atmosphere of a low-energy B-movie confined by a PG-13 rating, with oddly placed time lapse shots of the Manhattan skyline placed in between sequences to create an artificial sense of pace and urgency. The novel’s author is a producer on the film, and perhaps this kept Brougher confined to a source material that could have been more amply mined for substance. Indeed, the notion of older women presenting themselves as sexualized examples for teenagers to emulate feels like a product of the 1990s. In our contemporary culture, teen girls are given plenty of sex symbols closer to their own age in the eternal recurrence of the ingénue starlet who inevitably transforms into a vamp parody.