Film Review: The Transfiguration

A lonely, alienated teenager believes he's a vampire in this low-key drama aimed at art-house audiences rather than the Twilight crowd.
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Orphaned teenager Milo (Eric Ruffin) lives with his gruffly attentive older brother, Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), in a New York City housing project—not the kind you see in urban-scare movies, just a no-frills, blandly utilitarian set of low-rise brick buildings. Friendless and already on his school's radar as troubled, he spends his days dodging drug-dealing older teens and immersing himself in vampire lore because Milo believes that he himself is a vampire.

His notions of what that means are largely gleaned from movies, and his favorites are worlds removed from the pixie-dusted vampires of the Twilight series, the young-adult juggernaut predicated on the image of pretty little vamps just trying to fit in with the real thing... to be fair, not so easy when you look 16 but are actually closer to 100. Milo loves George Romero's angsty Martin (1978), about an alienated young man who may or may not be the real thing, and F.W. Murnau's 1922 Nosferatu, whose grotesquely predatory vampire count is the antithesis of a romantic charmer. Milo's friendship with the equally—if less exotically—troubled Sophie (Chloe Levine) might be the lifeline that keeps him from drifting farther into a dangerous fantasy world.

Writer-director Michael O'Shea's second film and first feature is a remarkably assured mix of everyday drama and horror, with the emphasis firmly on the former. Like Martin—a film he's cited in interviews, along with the similarly themed Swedish Let the Right One In (2008)—The Transfiguration doesn't stand or fall on the question of Milo's vampirism; it's about the perils of living too much in your own head without the system of internal checks and balances that keeps most adults in line. That's a pretty standard-issue growing-up problem, except that in Milo's head it's become intertwined with the kind of vampire fantasies that don't fuel a thriving trade in sexy-vamp Halloween costumes and Goth role-playing games. Powered by excellent performances from Ruffin and Levine and grounded by its unromanticized New York locations, The Transfiguration's measured pace will leave some audiences restless, but its slow build-up pays off beautifully.

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