“The Innocents” is a small independent feature which has almost all of the ingredients for being a new classic, except for one lethal mistake which throws the production completely out of kilter. This is a minor tragedy, for the film (which has been sailing about the festival circuit for the past couple of years but has yet to snag a wide release) has so much going for it that it is almost deserving of being hailed and admired.
Set in rural Indiana in the summer of 1961, “The Innocents” focuses on two girls who just graduated from high school: Jane, a book-smart but rather unpopular girl who never felt at home in her school, and Maggie, a tough tomboyish lass who can pack a mean left hook to quiet the local bullies. These polar opposites find an unlikely yet deep friendship during the long hot summer, and together they discover a long-buried secret about Jane’s deceased mother which brings them on an unlikely odyssey which changes their self-perceptions and forces them to question the nasty status quo of the time in regards to race, gender and economic segregation.
Made for only $100,000, “The Innocents” has a professional production quality which can rival any feature coming out of Hollywood. Writer-director Katherine Griffin has a remarkable style, with mature and intelligent dialogue that flavors a subtle direction which brings out the best of both the gifted ensemble cast and Susan Griffin’s wonderfully nostalgic production design. Special kudos are in order for cinematographer Caitlin Manning, who achieved bravura compositions in this 16mm production, and composer Leszek Drozd’s haunting score.
So what went wrong? Unfortunately, filmmaker Griffin decided to cast herself as Maggie and Kama Lee as Jane. Both women were 26 years old when the film was shot and (to be cruel) they look at to be in their mid-thirties on the screen; for roles which are specifically written for girls at the age of 17 or 18, the effect is completely disconcerting and it is nearly impossible to appreciate the screenplay’s passage from youth to maturity by presenting characters who clearly made this passage years ago. (Ms. Griffin’s hairstyle gives her an unexpected resemblance to Bettie Page, which only confuses matters.) Of course, overage “teenagers” are not uncommon in films or television–consider “Grease” or “Beverly Hills 90210”–but usually such casting is connected to productions that are not meant to be taken with any iota of gravity. Yet for a serious art film like “The Innocents,” which focuses on very sensitive subjects, the casting is deadly and nearly ruins everything wonderful about the production.
Strangely, a similar situation can be found in another film with the same title: Jack Clayton’s 1961 thriller “The Innocents,” based on Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.” In that film, Deborah Kerr played the neophyte nursemaid to a pair of children who may or may not be in touch with ghosts. Ms. Kerr was about 20 years too old for the character, yet in her extraordinary physical and emotional performance she perfectly essayed the full-throttled enthusiasm of a young woman landing her first job and any doubts about her casting were immediately erased by the power of her deep performance. In Ms. Griffin’s film, unfortunately, neither she nor Ms. Lee possess Ms. Kerr’s gift for bridging the years through the power of acting and their respective physical incompatibility with their characters results is an awkward strike against the film. This is a true shame, for this had everything going for it and should have launched Ms. Griffin to a higher level in the film world.