Tuesday, April 04, 2017

The Transfiguration: Vampire Coming of Age Story

Milo is surrounded by social pathologies, but he is convinced he is the monster. Frankly, that is exactly the goal the under-sized teen set for himself. His obsession with vampires has evolved from YouTube videos to real world blood-sucking. Yet, just as he is about to embrace the solitary life of a night-stalker, he unexpectedly develops a personal, possibly romantic relationship in Michael O’Shea’s The Transfiguration (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Essentially an orphan, Milo lives in the dubious care of his older brother Lewis, a veteran most likely suffering from PTSD. It is Milo who does responsible adult things, like paying the bills, to the extent they get done at all. In hopes of hastening an undead transformation, he feeds on blood once a month—usually in Manhattan, a safe distance from his Rockaway housing project. Trying to eschew patterns, he usually waits for opportunities to present themselves, like the perv in the opening scene.

Obviously, Milo’s vampire obsession is rooted in an acute sense of alienation. Still grieving his late mother, he routinely runs the gauntlet of gang-affiliated bullies prowling the project grounds. That is why he is so surprised when Sophie, the new white girl in the building, rather takes a liking to him. After the untimely death of her parents, she has been sent to live with her Chester-Molester grandfather, a few floors from Milo. Even though her idea of vampires comes from Twilight, she finds Milo’s weirdness appealing rather than off-putting. As Milo starts to behave more “human” around her, he clearly takes stock of the murders, both those committed by him and the thugs Lewis used to run with before his military service.

With nauseating predictability, some critics who only care about identity politics have questioned whether O’Shea, a white guy, can faithfully tell the story of an African American teen, such as Milo. Presumably, he has never exsanguinated the blood from a dying body either, so does that mean he also lacks the legitimacy to make a vampire movie? In any event, he portrays Milo and Lewis in smart, sensitive terms. In a sense, Transfiguration is like Sleight or Fresh (also helmed by a white dude), with vampirism taking the place of magic or chess. However, predatory bloodsucking is by its nature considerably messier, in both practical and ethical terms, as Milo learns full well.

Despite his preternatural babyface, Eric Ruffin broods like nobody’s business as the tightly wound Milo. He also develops some endearingly awkward chemistry with Chloe Levine’s Sophie. She too gives an unusually subtle and grounded performance, quietly projecting a sense of her lingering pain. Yet, it is Aaron Moten who really springs the trap on the audience, lulling us into taking big brother Lewis for granted and then gob-smacking us down the stretch in scenes where he imparts some brotherly wisdom onto Milo that really give deeper meaning to the entire film.

Throughout Transfiguration, Milo refers to Let the Right One In, which is not a completely inapt comparative. They are both moody, character-driven stories of young people coming to terms with vampirism, but they travel in diametrically opposite directions. In any event, O’Shea deserves credit for his realistic, bordering on naturalistic approach. This is definitely the road less traveled when it comes to vampire movies, but he proves it can indeed be fertile ground. Enthusiastically recommended, The Transfiguration opens this Friday (4/7) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.