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‘The Transfiguration’ (review)

Produced by Susan Leber
Written and Directed by Michael O’Shea
Starring Eric Ruffin, Chloe Levine, Aaron Moten

 

There’s a whole lot to unpack in this film. So let’s get started.

Milo (Eric Ruffin from The Good Wife) is a quiet and troubled kid who lives in the ghettos of NYC. His parents are dead. His brother is an ex-gang member who doesn’t talk much about his past. All of the local gang members call him “freak.” And he would rather live in his fantasy world of vampires than the real world.

In fact, he’s so obsessed with vampires that he fully believes that he is one. The movie opens with Milo drinking the blood of a man in a public restroom.

Eventually, Milo meets Sophie (Chloe Levine from The OA and The Defenders), a young woman who needs a respite from her abusive grandfather.

The two bond over dark obsessions and the deaths of their parents. With her help, Milo starts to break out of his shell a bit, but he’s still under the impression that he’s a vampire. He has notebook upon notebook of his notes about the “truth” about vampirism and his nighttime exploits.

Using a fantastical monster as an allegory for real-life violence is nothing new. It’s maybe not even anything new to put all of this into a story of how race and violence mix to create the circumstances of young people in ghettos. But The Transfiguration is a really complex allegory because there’s so much going on in a seemingly simple story.

First thing’s first: I really like the movie a lot. The acting is spot on. Eric and Chloe are amazing in the two roles that carry the entire movie. I love the ambition of putting this kind of story into an urban, gang-life setting. It was constantly surprising and heartbreaking at just about every turn.

If there’s a problem with the film, it’s that it doesn’t go far enough to really hone its message. It’s obvious that Milo is caught up in a life that doesn’t suit him at all. Sure, he’s not involved with the gangs, but the gangs touch his life on a daily basis. He sees their violence. He’s the victim of it at times. His vampire obsession is his attempt to control the violence, but it’s also a result of the violence. If you’re constantly surrounded by violence and constantly told that you’re bad by the society around you, why shouldn’t you just go ahead and succumb to that violent lifestyle? He just chooses to be a monster instead of a gangster.

But does it go far enough to explain that it’s society that causes a lot of the violence in the ghettos? That it’s society that pushes these kids to feel like they need to join gangs in the first place? They need a refuge from the violence that’s thrust upon them in the rest of society, so they reach out for the one place where they can control violence and be accepted: gangs. The one time that this is spoken of is when Milo’s brother tells him, “There’s always someone doing something worse than you. You do what you gotta do to survive. Someone will ALWAYS be worse.”

It’s really up to the viewer as to whether this is enough or if there needed to be something more. Maybe some action during the film that shows this. Personally, I feel like the ghetto was shown as such a vacuum that the outside world almost didn’t have any influence on it. I don’t think that was writer/director Michael O’Shea’s intention at all. But the only time the outside world has any affect on anything that happens in the ghetto is when the cops are involved, and they’re really just used as tools. They’re pretty much not controlling their own actions.

This is kind of a minor quibble, but it does weigh on the film. It would have been interesting to see what an African American director would have done with the same material. Would this issue have been fixed?

Milo talks about a lot of vampire films throughout his story. (Sophie tries desperately to push Twilight on him, but he’s not having it. Good for him.) The one that sticks out the most, of course, is George Romero’s Martin, another film about a man who believes he’s a vampire. The Transfiguration is definitely a good successor to Romero’s legacy of socially conscious horror.

 

The Transfiguration is available On Demand starting August 8th.

 

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