The problem for teenagers is that social awkwardness is cured by time and experience, which are precisely what they don’t have. The costs of trying to negotiate the world’s cruelties vastly outweigh the benefits. They feel it better to just disappear completely into the cocoon created by whatever oddball interests or subcultures captivated them.
Unfortunately for Milo (Eric Ruffin), what’s captivated him is a particularly literal interest in vampirism.
When The Transfiguration opens, Milo is sucking blood out of the neck of some man he’s just murdered in a public restroom stall. From there, we watch Milo go about his day. During school, he mainly sketches. Occasionally he meets with a counselor, who asks him if he’s still hurting animals.
He lives with his brother, Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), in an apartment building in a blighted and impoverished neighborhood on the outskirts of New York City. His room is stuffed with artwork and movies on old VHS tapes, ranging from Nosferatu to The Lost Boys. Milo likes to hang out in his room and watch gruesome internet videos: A spider killing a wasp, lions devouring a kill, etc. He keeps journals documenting his interests and the lessons he’s learned about how to kill, plus a calendar where we tracks both his victims and when the moon is full. In a detail both unsettling and mundane, he later vomits up his victim’s blood.
Michael O’Shea, who also wrote the script, directs with a shadowy and moody realism. It at least seems apparent that nothing supernatural is going on here — Milo pukes the blood back up, after all. But O’Shea maintains enough control of tone, with help from Margaret Chardiet’s pulsing and disconcerting music, that you genuinely wonder right up to the end.
Equally crucial is Ruffin’s performance. He does not play Milo as creepy or twitchy, but rather intelligent and poised. Milo rarely speaks, but when he does it’s with an admirable frankness. Milo understands he is different, he intends to go right on being different, and he realizes this means he needs to keep the rest of the world at a distance. At the same time, he seems to feel little resentment over this, and bears his self-imposed exile with grace.
Then one day Sophie (Chloe Levine) drops into Milo’s life.
She lives in the same apartment building with her grandfather, and half the time hides her face behind a mass of curly hair. They bump into each other in the stairwell, and strike up a cautious friendship that eventually blossoms into something more. She’s slightly taller than Milo, and the two make an odd but endearing pair.
The Transfiguration never addresses race or class directly, but they’re always underneath the surface. Both Milo and Sophie are poor, but Sophie is also one of the few white people in Milo’s building. She immediately intuits that Milo, like her, is somehow alienated from the world around him. There’s an early scene where we see (in tasteful long shot) Sophie offer herself sexually to some local boys, not out of desire but acquiescence and boredom. Milo offers her some quiet companionship in the aftermath, shared over some alcohol, and this seals their friendship.
This is a community of people, black and white alike, who have been cast aside by the economy and by society. The social fabric is frayed, and all connections are tenuous and stressed. Random encounters with local cliques are suffused with the possibility of exploitation or violence. The Transfiguration drops heavy hints that Milo’s fascination with vampirism is rooted in personal tragedy, and that at some deep level it operates as a bid for power over his fate.
In such a milieu, Milo’s spiral into his own little dark world can proceed relatively unmolested. Lewis is clearly exhausted from life and the burdens of his history as a solider, and spends most of his time on the couch. But he also cares for his younger brother, and probably guesses more than he lets on: Late in the movie, Lewis assures Milo that,”No matter what you’re doing, there’s someone else out there doing worse.”
In Sophie’s case, she learns of Milo’s vampiric interests only slowly. At one point he sits her down to watch a video of cows being slaughtered. Later, in a striking moment of ethical compunction, he apologies for freaking her out. But Sophie takes things in stride: In their socioeconomic world, no form of dysfunction or strangeness is unheard of — and there’s an undeniable humanism to that.
Ultimately, we all learn our social skills, not because they are good but because they are necessary. The concrete reality of other people, and the inevitable separateness of their needs from ours, is something we all eventually have to contend with. His relationship with Sophie forces Milo into that process.
Unfortunately, the consequences of Milo’s specific nature are far graver than most. So the costs of making some sort of peace with the rest of the world will be unbearably high. In confronting that dilemma, and the decisions Milo makes, The Transfiguration reveals itself to be a movie about growing up, albeit in an extremely roundabout way.
O’Shea’s script is simple and deliberately paced, and his direction patient. So the film operates as a slow-burn character study, and a lot of people might even find it boring. But in its deceptive simplicity of purpose, The Transfiguration’s final scenes achieve a quiet and moving power.