When troubled teen Milo, who has a fascination with vampire lore, meets the equally alienated Sophie, the two form a bond that begins to blur Milo's fantasy into reality.
There are several gears you can choose when you take your car out of park. You can reverse. You can stick it in neutral or you can put it into drive and move things ahead.
The new indie horror/drama The Transfiguration never does anything but basically spin its wheels, while idling and spewing gas – all the while in neutral.
And no, it’s not necessary to put any film into overdrive just for the sake of “action” or “spectacle”, but a simple drive forward for any piece – is essential. In The Transfiguration, it feels like it sits there in neutral and therefore, nothing really happens.
It’s not that the film is bad – it just never catches on. Honestly, by the 20-minute mark, any promise I sensed at the outset (and I was definitely intrigued) – was spent and the pacing became a problem. I understand that it’s a character piece, but I was waiting for something more to happen.
That’s not to say that I can’t appreciate subtlety or that I need a vampire movie to be full of splattering blood and crucifixes and a mind-blowing climax as the central blood-sucker is vanquished by the dawn’s early light.
The Transfiguration (a Biblical term meaning, “a complete change of form or appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state”) is a festival darling which tells the story of a teenager named Milo (Eric Ruffin) and his new love interest Sophie (Chloe Levine). They live the lives of orphans in the midst of urban blight, although Milo lives with his older brother Lewis (Aaron Moten) and Sophie lives with her never-seen grandfather. This awkward but genuine love between two social outcasts is tested when Sophie learns that Milo is a vampire. He kills and sucks blood (his first on-screen kill starts the film with a bloody bang – there’s that early promise), but is unaffected by the old trappings of religious iconography and sunlight. He keeps books about the lessons he learns and how to best hunt his victims. But Milo is also on a spiritual journey (thus the title) and needs to make a decision about his future and how Sophie fits in.
Performance-wise, nothing was necessarily bad, but I wasn’t a fan of the acting here. There’s just far too much indie-film style brooding. It’s very monotone and morose, and the fact that there’s little emotion actually displayed on the screen – well, it does little to draw you into the characters and their plight.
Chloe Levine (looking creepily like a young Geena Davis) provides the best performance in the film. Sophie is needy, and Levine’s schlubby appearance helps cement her outcast status. There’s more sympathy for her than for Milo, mostly as she has the extra baggage of putting up with Milo’s secrets and his sometimes cold shoulder. Levine also gives Sophie the chance to emote a bit more, but it’s still not enough.
As for Ruffin’s performance – I found it lacking. Again, it’s not bad, but it’s not particularly engaging. He’s at his best when he is in scenes opposite Moten as his brother. There’s a real bond there and his reproaching tone when saying “Lewis?” is cute, but with so little personality and what amounts to basically an “emo” character, his few moments of good acting can’t carry the film.
Once again, there’s no drive forward in anything about the film. Characters mope around and while Milo certainly has a journey of self-discovery, it’s not insistent enough for an audience to completely care. Neutral.
The film also feels like it just trudges along – somewhat aimlessly (it feels longer than its 97 minute run-time). Sophie and Milo have a falling out and then they are back together. Another parting of ways and then with no fanfare, they’re back together again. I get that there’s some unspoken connection between these characters which keeps bringing them together, but without much drama and such great ease to go “back to normal” after a falling out – it doesn’t work for me.
I’ve griped about this before, and it applies here. When a film is semi-meta and knowledgeable about pop culture or film history – well, it’s a very fine line to walk. So few movies can get away with referencing movie quotes or performances or famous scenes. It generally feels like the writer/filmmakers are making an attempt to impress with their vast knowledge. There are so few films where these bits of dialogue feel authentic to the characters and the story. While it makes sense that someone of Milo’s age would have the most exposure to films like Let the Right One In and even Martin (he references both), his discussions with Sophie about how most vampire films don’t seem “realistic” never manages to feel genuine or necessary to the story. Ironically, his mention of the George A. Romero classic Martin – provides insight into what The Transfiguration most wants to be. And while that film was also a character study (John Amplas’ interpretation of his lost character is a true marvel – whereas Ruffin seems just mopey) and a legitimate masterpiece, The Transfiguration doesn’t even come close to that film’s greatness.
I also have a legit question. What’s the deal with Sophie’s grandfather (whom she lives with during the course of the film)? We never see him, and the few times that Milo comes to pick up Sophie at her apartment, she won’t let him in and seems to barely open the door to get in and out – as if to hide something. Was there a secret in there? I found this behavior very intriguing, but no explanation or reveal ever took place.
I was quite distracted by some of the camera-work and editing choices. It’s that now over-used “shaky-cam”, which is meant to offer up some sort of documentary-realism, but here, it kept me out of what was happening to the characters. There were also several “fade-to-blacks” throughout which didn’t feel appropriate for the transitions where they were used. Just little things like this can keep a viewer focused on the wrong things. And if the film already wasn’t that engaging because of major things, then these smaller issues are even more noticeable.
With okay performances and not much to drive the story forward, I can’t totally get behind The Transfiguration. But there are some good ideas and some good moments (the sequence featuring genre favorite Larry Fessenden in particular was disturbing) giving it enough potential to maybe try out.
So put your movie-watching gears into drive and see what you think, but be ready to slam on the brakes with the film’s many problems and put yourself into reverse – perhaps going back in time to choose a different title. But see what you think.
The Transfiguration did well on the festival circuit, and is now available for viewing in select theatres in select cities.