A coming of age story that doesn’t suck
The Transfiguration, a new independent film directed by Michael O’Shea, is a vampire flick – sort of. At first, it’s not clear if Milo, the black teenager at the center of the film, is a proven vampire, like the bloodthirsty, winged monsters of lore, or if he’s just a weird child who feeds on people. . Then again, if you’re the dead type what’s the difference? The film opens with a scene of Milo feeding on an older man in a bathroom. You hear it before you see it, and even then you never see Milo’s teeth dig into the guy’s neck. You also never understand how the size of a child Milo could have brought down a grown man. What is happening is clear, however. And it’s almost scarier – more believable – to skimp on the details.
If killing people and sucking their blood makes you a vampire, so be it: Milo is a vampire. The Transfiguration is more curious to know what makes him want to become one. In 97 slim minutes and with a calm style, it tells the story of the feeling of abandonment of an orphan teenager and the fantastic private world he imagines to make up for it. Milo, who is 14, lives with his adult brother, a veteran with PTSD, as part of an anonymous project in New York City. He doesn’t have any friends, really, except Sophie – a girl he meets who lives with her abusive grandfather in Milo’s apartment building. I guess they’re boyfriend and girlfriend; Milo doesn’t seem overly attached to the idea, but the film is keen to let us think that by not killing her, Milo must have affection for her.
If you haven’t noticed, Milo is a strange kid – and The Transfiguration does justice to this strangeness. The film was first screened in the Cannes Film Festival’s “Un Certain Regard” competition last year, a fitting way for O’Shea to start a film career. It has all the signs of independent cinema that we should be wary of now: naturalism without style, stillness in hand, as well as all the genre triggers. The Transfiguration goes way beyond routine, however. Milo is not just an obsessive vampire; he’s a cinephile vampire who keeps a healthy collection of vampire stories – from Nosferatu To Leave the one on the right in – play in his room when he is at home. The Transfiguration deliberately nods to other genre films in the genre, but it’s also a useful dramatic note – you realize Milo depends on these films to understand himself. It is also, with humor, a question of cultivating taste. He has to pretend for Sophie’s sake not to hate dusk: “Okay, so I lied”, he confessed later. “I thought it sucked. Not realistic at all.”
Milo isn’t that impressed with your pop culture vampire romance bullshit – and The Transfiguration goes out of his way to not look like any of these movies. It is not pulpy or itchy; at its best and most mysterious, it’s strangely poignant. Hiding in Milo’s past is what made him an orphan: the death of his parents. We never get the full picture, but we see enough of it to feel that Milo’s bloodlust arose from a first encounter with gore. It is a bit like Dexter, but somehow darker.
O’Shea has wanted to make movies since graduating from SUNY Purchase in the 90s. “I’ve been a bouncer, a cab driver, and for the last decade I’ve been fixing computers.” , O’Shea Recount Indiewire Last year, “but I wrote scripts all the time.” In the role of Milo, young actor Eric Ruffin is irresistibly silent. Her voice borders on a monotonous tone that matches her placid expressions. Milo is a secret child, and Ruffin evokes a rich inner life that is none of our business. The film runs the risk of taking this placidity for granted, as if, because Milo is silent, he has little to do. O’Shea directs his young actors with a naturalism that sometimes gives the impression of masking a lack of authentic dramatic ideas. In the film’s best moments, however, O’Shea reduces his characters’ conversations to rhythm and tone. To his great honor, The Transfiguration manages to feel very New York without going out of its way to show much of the city.
The film ends with a big gesture. Milo is enduring a fate that, we realize, he designed from the start. It’s a move that seems to go beyond what we otherwise know about his character, making us wish the film, which is almost aggressively straightforward, gave him more to do and to be. It’s a sign of O’Shea’s potential as a writer that the idea – which concerns Milo’s responsibility to himself and others – lands at all. “I’m not sure the vampires are meant to be here,” Milo writes in a letter to Sophie at the end of the film. The Transfiguration is a small movie housing some big ideas about loss and how to make up for it. Its reach is beyond its reach, but the stirring outbursts of imagination and truth are worth it.