A teenager with blood in his mouth and vampires on his mind struggles with loneliness, loss, and sociopathic tendencies.
Loss and loneliness shape all of us in different ways, and for NYC teenager Milo (Eric Ruffin) it means a descent into self-isolation, online videos of animals in pain, and the belief that he’s a vampire. It’s a dangerous path he’s on, and it’s clear he’s been fine-tuning it for a while now – his weekly meetings with a school therapist sees her questioning if he still thinks about hurting animals. Everyone sees him as a weird loner, including the rough and tumble thugs who run the surrounding streets of his neighborhood, but what they don’t know can’t hurt them.
It just might kill some of them though.
Milo kills and drinks his victims’ blood on a regular basis, and while he robs them too he’s not entirely sure what to do with the growing stash of cash. His pattern of seclusion and murder is interrupted by the arrival of Sophie (Chloe Levine), a teenage girl who moves into his building to live with her abusive grandfather. Like Milo, her young life has seen loss and suffering, but while he strikes outward she inflicts pain on herself. The two connect on some level and bond over vampire movies – he prefers Let the Right One In, she loves Twilight – but their own “love” story seems destined for something other than a happy ending.
Writer/director Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration is a beautifully restrained coming of age tale featuring bursts of bloody violence amid the dark calm and seemingly doomed romance. A feature expansion of his own short, Milo, the film makes the stakes clear with the very first scene as we meet the boy sucking a man’s violently-opened neck in a bathroom stall. It’s neither sexual nor personal and is instead the passion-less act of someone doing only what he must to survive. Or what he thinks he must?
Milo and the film itself are well aware of vampires in pop culture, and he and Sophie reference the likes of Nosferatu, True Blood, and Near Dark in conversation. He discounts most of them as being too unrealistic, and his practical approach to the need for blood and lack of concern over sunlight and garlic follows suit by calling to mind the likes of George Romero’s Martin. Like Martin, this is who he is, and while Sophie accepts the foibles of his that she knows – his attempt to suck the blood from her freshly-cut arms sees her recoil while acknowledging the thought was “kind of sweet, but gross” – it’s the ones she has yet to learn that don’t bode well.
Blood is spilled and splashed, but Milo’s story is given power through both its setting and Ruffin’s performance. The events transpiring around him – drug deals, street violence, sexual abuse – are presented simply as a reality, and while they seem ripped straight out of The Wire or some austere indie drama the backdrop they create informs Milo’s situation. He lives with his older, TV-addicted homebody of a brother and runs from bullies each day after school, but he survives on a methodical schedule of killings and violent videos to channel his urges. He may or may not be a vampire himself, but the world around him is most assuredly sucking the life out of everyone it touches.
Milo sees his needs as part and parcel with his vampirism while we see it as something more real but every bit as dangerous. He’s a budding sociopath, and Ruffin’s calm, cold-blooded behavior convinces in how shut off he appears from emotion and human connection. Moments of light break free, particularly when he lets his guard down around Sophie, but rather than comfort us we’re left on edge in our concern for where it will lead. Levine is equally wonderful here as someone whose unfortunate life has once again landed her in the cross-hairs of someone else’s personal demons.
The Transfiguration is as much a drama as it is a horror film, as much a thriller as it is a romance, and while its methodical execution won’t appeal to everyone those who go along for the ride will be rewarded. It’s a darkly affecting tale about the high and sometimes bloody cost of self awareness and sociopathic conviction.
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