The Transfiguration, a new indie film directed by Michael O’Shea, is a vampire movie — sort of. It initially isn’t clear whether Milo, the black teen at the movie’s center, is a tried-and-true vampire, like the bloodthirsty, garlic-averse monsters of lore, or if he’s merely a weird kid who feeds on people. Then again, if you’re the dead guy, what’s the difference? The movie opens on a scene of Milo feeding on an older man in a bathroom stall. You hear it before you see it, and even then, you don’t ever see Milo’s teeth digging into the guy’s neck. Nor do you ever get too firm a grip on how a kid Milo’s size was able to take a grown man down. What’s happening is clear, however. And it’s almost creepier — more believable — for skimping on the details.
If killing people and slurping up their blood makes you a vampire, so be it: Milo is a vampire. The Transfiguration is more curious about what makes him want to become one. In a slim 97 minutes and with a quiet style, it tells the story of an orphaned teenager’s sense of abandonment and the fantastical private world he devises to make up for it. Milo, who’s 14, lives with his adult brother, a war veteran with PTSD, in an anonymous New York City project. He has no friends, really, save Sophie — a girl he meets who lives with her abusive grandfather in Milo’s building. I guess they’re boyfriend and girlfriend; Milo doesn’t seem too committed to the idea, but the movie makes a point of letting 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 some justice to that strangeness. The movie premiered in the "Un Certain Regard" competition of the Cannes Film Festival last year, an auspicious way for O’Shea to start a film career. It has all the signs of indie filmmaking that we should be wary of by now: the style-less naturalism, the handheld quietude, as well as all of the genre triggers. The Transfiguration largely rises above routine, however. Milo isn’t merely a vampire obsessive; he’s a vampire cinephile who keeps a healthy collection of vampire tales — from Nosferatu to Let the Right One In — playing in his room whenever he’s at home. The Transfiguration deliberately nods to other genre movies of its kind, but it’s also a useful dramatic note — you realize Milo depends on these movies to understand himself. It’s also, humorously, a matter of cultivating taste. He has to pretend for Sophie’s sake not to hate Twilight: "Alright, so I lied," he later admits. "I thought it sucked. Not realistic at all."
Milo is not so impressed with your pop-culture vampire romance bullshit — and The Transfiguration goes out of its way not to resemble any of those movies. It isn’t pulpy or prurient; at its best and most mysterious, it’s oddly poignant. Lurking in Milo’s past is what made him an orphan: the deaths of his parents. We never get the picture in full, but we see enough to sense that Milo’s lust for blood was borne of an early encounter with gore. It’s a little like Dexter, but somehow grimmer.
O’Shea has wanted to make movies since graduating from SUNY Purchase in the ’90s. "I’ve been a bouncer, a cab driver, and the last decade, I fixed computers," O’Shea told Indiewire last year, "but I’ve been writing scripts the whole time." As Milo, young actor Eric Ruffin is compellingly quiet. His voice verges on a monotone that matches his placid expressions. Milo is a secretive kid, and Ruffin evokes a rich inner life that’s nonetheless not our business. The movie runs the risk of taking that placidity for granted, as if because Milo is quiet, there’s only so much for him to do. O’Shea directs his young actors with a naturalism that sometimes feels like it masks a lack of genuine dramatic ideas. In the film’s best moments, however, O’Shea reduces his characters’ conversations down to a rhythm and a tone. To its great credit, The Transfiguration manages to feel very New York without going far out of its way to show much of the city.
The film ends with a grand gesture. Milo endures a fate that, we realize, he’s been engineering all along. It’s a decision that seems to outpace what we otherwise know of his character, making us wish the film, which is almost aggressively simple, had given him more to do and 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 vampires are meant to be here," Milo writes in a letter to Sophie late in the movie. The Transfiguration is a small movie harboring big ideas about loss and how to make up for it. Its reach exceeds its grasp, but the stirring fits of imagination and truth make the attempt worthwhile.