The vampire is a creature of European descent. When thinking of vampires, the mental image of ancient, bourgeois monsters is conjured in the mind of most people. When the vampire does come to America, it’s often in the form of outsider cultures. Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK and the comic series AMERICAN VAMPIRE, created by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque, use the vast desert wastelands of the American Southwest to merge the vampire with cowboy imagery.

The film THE LOST BOYS shifts the vampire from European aristocracy to California punk. Then, of course, there are the TWILIGHT films that somehow managed to combine vampirism with conservative religious, sexual suppression, a concept as American as apple pie. In spite of these works, the idea of the “Americanized” vampire is still nebulous. There are no decades of folklore or elaborate “rules” for combating a vampire from American oral tradition as there are throughout Europe. It is this dense European history of vampirism that informs the character of Milo (Eric Ruffin) in director Michael O’Shea’s unique, if sometimes flawed, THE TRANSFIGURATION.

Milo is a teenage boy with an unhealthy fixation on vampire lore, a fixation that has manifested itself into a pang of hunger to feast on the blood of humans. O’Shea plays coy with the audience, making us believe at times that perhaps Milo is one of the “children of the night.” The sequences of Milo stalking and hunting his prey are unsettling, especially when you consider just how young actor Eric Ruffin looks.

These unsettling sequences will be familiar to anyone who has seen Tomas Alfredson’s LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, another tale of two young people falling in love, one of whom is a vampire. One of Milo’s attacks seems to be a direct homage to a sequence from Alfredson’s film. Of course, O’Shea acknowledges his many influences, including LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, through Milo’s obsession with all forms of vampire tale.

Eric Ruffin in THE TRANSFIGURATION

What sets this film apart from the American remake of LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is the ambiguity of its central character. THE TRANSFIGURATION is a movie that does not provide a clear moral judgment for its audience, which can make the film equal parts frustrating and fascinating. Milo is clearly troubled.

A traumatic childhood event inspires his emulation of vampire culture, so the audience is primarily watching a teenager go through a psychologically destructive experience. The audience is a witness to his unsettling actions and is left to make its judgment. While that may sound like a depressing slog of a film, both the audience and Milo are saved by a bright light named Sophie (Chloe Levine), the new girl who moves into Milo’s building.

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Levine and Ruffin have terrific chemistry together. Their budding young romance is genuinely moving and sweet. All of these elements come together to create a portrait of a young boy in serious need of help, but unable to receive it due to his circumstances. Milo lives in Queens, NY with his older brother, Otis (Aaron Clifton Moten), who seems borderline catatonic at times.

Milo keeps the pair afloat, taking the responsibility of paying bills on his young shoulders; however, that weight is clearly crushing him. Ruffin plays Milo as stoic, speaking, in short, staccato sentences — he is a brick wall of emotional mystery; however, Ruffin’s performance is not wooden. Ruffin is intriguing and there are obvious signs of pain and loneliness behind his eyes. He may kill, but the audience still sees him as a victim rather than a monster.

Director O’Shea occasionally dips into some deeper social commentary about poverty and race in America’s cities. O’Shea’s vision of New York City, framed expertly by cinematographer Sung Rae Cho, strips it of its romantic sheen. It is a real, grimy place that can beat down the people living in it. Given that Milo is a young black child, one cannot help but wonder if he would be given the kind of mental care he desperately needs if he was from a wealthy, or especially, white family.

Popular culture will often sensationalize, glorify, or try to force empathy onto monstrous murderers who are white but declare violence committed by people of color as the acts of “thugs.” That is without having any similar attempts to understand the environmental circumstances that drive individuals to commit those acts. In just the last few years, Michael Brown was called a criminal who deserved death for allegedly shoplifting, while Dylan Roof was given Burger King after committing a heinous, racially motivated mass murder.

Eric Ruffin and Chole Levine in THE TRANSFIGURATION

O’Shea makes us empathize with Milo even though his deeds may terrify us. We want to see him happy, while the world would be quick to demonize him because of his skin color. The film’s use of Milo’s fascination vampiric violence as a larger allegory for racial inequalities never quite materializes to convey a clear final message to the audience. Luckily, O’Shea’s character work and direction of the two young actors at the center of this film carry the story’s heart where its subtext occasionally falls short.

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It can’t be said enough what a risk O’Shea took shouldering the emotional weight of his first feature length film on child actors. Both Ruffin and Levine carry themselves with a naturalism and skill that some more experienced actors lack. Their work is some of the finest work from young actors put to screen, and O’Shea deserves a great deal of credit for drawing such natural performances from these two actors.

O’Shea peppers the script with little details about the characters, such as Milo’s insistence that a good vampire movie is “realistic,” that makes them empathetic in spite of their actions. He even manages to make Sophie a character with a rich inner life who is believable without falling into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. Levine has a relaxed confidence on screen that makes her character feel lived in and real. It will not be surprising if Levine and Ruffin have long careers ahead of them.

For a debut feature, THE TRANSFIGURATION shows a lot of potential for its director. It takes the idea of the vampire in a new and interesting direction with its, to quote the film’s hero, “realistic” take. It may not be the definitive American vampire tale, but it certainly will find entry into the American-vampire canon.

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